As Padres adjust to new changes, Fernando Tatis Jr. looks back to being his old self

LOS ANGELES — In the second inning of their first visit this season to a ballpark that has tended to magnify their weaknesses, the San Diego Padres displayed not only the complications but also the upside of positioning shortstops all over the field.

Xander Bogaerts, who had never played second base in his career until a Cactus League game less than eight weeks ago, booted a routine, two-out grounder and watched Padres starter Michael King pay an immediate price. Swinging at the next pitch, perennial MVP candidate Mookie Betts socked a go-ahead homer into Dodger Stadium’s left-field pavilion as the building shook with celebration.

Moments after Betts’ three-run swat, Jackson Merrill prevented further damage in highlight fashion. The 20-year-old Padres rookie, who had never played center field in his life until a spring exhibition less than seven weeks ago, sprinted onto the warning track to rob Los Angeles Dodgers megastar Shohei Ohtani of extra bases, producing perhaps the top play of his young career.

Five innings later, another former shortstop supplied another reminder of the value of versatile athleticism. With his fifth home run of the young season, right fielder and reigning Platinum Glove winner Fernando Tatis Jr. not only tied Friday’s slugfest of a game but also provided more evidence that, amid all of the Padres’ unconventional shuffling on defense, the most dynamic force in their offense might be back to his old, MVP-candidate self.

“I think he’s back to himself,” first baseman Jake Cronenworth said after an 8-7 Padres victory in which Tatis’ seventh-inning homer ultimately set the stage for Merrill’s decisive single in the top of the 11th. “I think he’s finally comfortable in his role in right field, not that he wasn’t last year obviously. But I think it’s one of those things — he’s got a full season under his belt from last year (after) being out for a year, and this is the Tati I know.”

Tatis, who had never been a full-time outfielder before a wrist injury and a subsequent performance-enhancing drugs suspension sidelined him for all of 2022, returned last year as a surprisingly effective right fielder and a relatively disappointing hitter. The National League’s leading slugger in 2021, he played in a career-high 141 games but logged only 25 home runs and an OPS well below his career average. He spoke near the end of the season of aiming to restore his prior status as one of the sport’s best all-around players in 2024.

So far, after an offseason of fine-tuning his swing under the guidance of his father and another spring removed from wrist and shoulder surgeries, Tatis has delivered a .901 OPS and a 50-homer pace. His underlying metrics have supported the early season surge; according to Statcast, Tatis entered Friday’s game with an expected slugging percentage of .537, a number that was headed upward after three more examples of hard contact.

Put more simply, he has resembled the hitter who led the National League in home runs three years ago — and twice went deep a year earlier in an elimination playoff game against Mike Shildt and the St. Louis Cardinals.

“He’s a killer,” Shildt, now the Padres’ manager, said late Friday. “He’s a stone-cold killer. In (2020) … you saw the body language of a guy that you expect to get it done, and I see that body language now. I see that killer instinct.”

Only four players have hit more home runs than Tatis this season, and all four are tied with six homers. One of those players is Betts, a six-time Gold Glove Award winner in right field who is proving his own uncommon flexibility as, at age 31, a starting shortstop. In Friday’s top of the seventh, Betts ranged from short to foul territory to make a crowd-pleasing catch as he crashed into the netting down the left-field line.

But the inning would belong to a visiting player. Four batters later, after Merrill walked and Tyler Wade singled, Tatis hammered a game-tying homer to left.

“That was a big situation in the game. That put us in a good situation to come back,” said Manny Machado, who clubbed a two-run drive in the top of the first for one of San Diego’s three homers. (Cronenworth went deep in the sixth to record homers in consecutive games for the first time since September 2022.) “That’s what he’s here for. He’s gonna have an unbelievable year this year, and just seeing him being healthy finally and him going out there and playing every single day, I’m glad he’s on our team.”

With Juan Soto in New York and Machado still working his way back to playing third base, Tatis has reemerged as a linchpin of a seemingly refocused offense and a defense that ranks second in the majors in outs above average. At the same time, his positional versatility has helped facilitate 2023 Gold Glove winner Ha-Seong Kim’s return to his most valuable position. And it has provided a template of sorts for Merrill, who, like Tatis did a spring ago, is making a rapid transition to the outfield.

So far, Merrill — who entered the season with limited experience above A-ball — has surpassed expectations offensively and defensively while bringing a youthful energy that reminds some teammates of Tatis’ rookie season in 2019.

“Thankfully, I knew it wasn’t a home run,” King said of Ohtani’s second-inning line drive. “But then when I turned around and saw the outfielder positioning, I was like, ‘Oh, (Merrill’s) got a long way to go to get there.’ A kid that has never really played the outfield, it’s insane to watch him succeed as well as he is.”

“He’s a baller,” Tatis said. “I love watching that kid play baseball.

“The amount of help that he has brought us already, how he’s playing defense, how he’s playing offense, how he runs the bases — he’s just a game-changer. And hopefully he can keep it that way for a long season.”

Friday, before Merrill showed a maturity beyond his years with an 11th-inning opposite-field single, it was Tatis who put the visitors in position to have such a chance. The Padres, who had lost 18 of their previous 22 regular-season games at Dodger Stadium, went on to capture their first extra-inning victory in Chavez Ravine since April 25, 2021.

On that night three years ago, Tatis homered, the Padres overcame a six-run deficit and the visitors won 8-7 in 11 innings.

(Photo of Fernando Tatis Jr.: Kirby Lee / USA Today)

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