SAN DIEGO — In 18 previous seasons as a major-league manager, Bob Melvin missed only two games. Once, he excused himself to attend his daughter’s college graduation. The other time, he was sidelined by a neck ailment. Both absences registered as extraordinary. Long before he left Oakland for San Diego, Melvin established himself as a dugout leader known for his constancy.
In March, when Melvin learned his new club had lost its star shortstop to a broken wrist, he tried to turn a crushing blow into a lesson in resilience. He expected he would be alongside his players, enduring it all.
He never imagined missing nine games due to illness and eventual prostate surgery. He never envisioned sitting out 11 more games because of COVID-19 protocols. He never anticipated he would have to watch another potentially crippling injury from his couch. He never saw all of this coming within the first three months of his Padres debut.
On Wednesday, he returned to a team that continues to weather multiple unplanned absences. In the morning, Melvin described how he felt a slight scratch in his throat on June 11, how he subsequently tested positive, and how he did not experience any symptoms the past nine days.
“It feels great to be back,” Melvin said. “That was very unsettling to sit around like that and have to watch games for that long and feeling the way I did. It’s a crazy world we live in.”
In the afternoon, the Padres kept succeeding amid an unusual season. They swept the Diamondbacks in a 10-4 win at Petco Park. They overcame uncharacteristic sloppiness on defense with a barrage of offense. They improved to 44-27 overall — and 44-27 without Fernando Tatis Jr., who has only recently begun to test his surgically repaired wrist by taking low-intensity swings with a fungo bat.
There are other tallies to illustrate their resourcefulness. The Padres are 3-0 without National League MVP candidate Manny Machado, who sprained his left ankle Sunday. They are 32-19 when Melvin is their acting manager. And they are 12-8 when he is not.
Wednesday, with Melvin back but Machado and Tatis out of the lineup, the Padres buried the Diamondbacks beneath 16 hits. They scored at least nine runs for the fifth time since June 8. Another offensive eruption did not feel like a coincidence to those in the home dugout. When Melvin returned from prostate surgery last month, the Padres pulled out an 8-7 victory in San Francisco.
“His presence in the dugout always helps,” left fielder Jurickson Profar said.
Like every other manager, Melvin provides unquantifiable value. But in San Diego, as in his previous stops, he has frequently earned praise. As a tactician, he is considered among the shrewdest in the game. As a leader, he exudes confidence while practicing constant communication. His central message, according to players and coaches, has remained the same since spring training.
“It’s doing our job a little bit better, no matter what the situation is, who’s out, no matter if we’re losing or we’re winning. … It doesn’t matter,” catcher Austin Nola said. “And that mentality, I think we can all control, right? That attitude. And I think a lot of us are doing that.
“As successful as he’s been, when you see that you kind of say, ‘I’m buying in because I know that if I follow him, we’re going to be in a good spot.’”
Despite Tatis’ season-long absence, the Padres are in a virtual tie with the Dodgers for first place in the NL West. Melvin has expertly deployed a deep starting rotation that has kept them in almost every game. He has empowered a coaching staff that does not panic when he cannot be there. This season, bench coach Ryan Christenson and quality control coach Ryan Flaherty have served as acting managers. Each has overseen a winning stretch of baseball.
They are in another such stretch because their hitters are producing as consistently as ever. After Wednesday’s outburst, the offense was 3 percent better than league average, according to Weighted Runs Created Plus. Given their starting pitching, the Padres could go far with that kind of offense.
And they project to get better, at least better than they are now. This week has brought promising updates on the team’s two best hitters.
On Sunday, Melvin watched from afar as Machado sprained his ankle in what looked like a gruesome fashion. On Wednesday, after getting an up-close look himself, the manager confirmed that the third baseman has healed faster than expected.
“I don’t foresee that happening here in the next few days,” Melvin said of a trip to the injured list. “We’ll see how he continues to progress, but he looks a lot better than I thought.”
On Tuesday, there was another surprise. Tatis, who received disappointing news on the healing in his wrist last week, was seen taking swings at Petco Park. On Wednesday, Melvin confirmed that the shortstop had been cleared for light activity with a bat in his hands.
“We’re just trying to take stock of where he’s at,” Melvin said. “We’re not pushing anything. But we’re in a period here where something could change from day to day or week to week. We want to just know how he’s feeling.”
“Every time, it feels a little bit better,” Tatis said.
Bob Melvin on the swings Fernando Tatis Jr. was seen taking: “We’re just trying to take stock of where he’s at. We’re not pushing anything. But we’re in a period here where something could change from day to day or week to week.” Tatis estimated he was swinging at 40% intensity.
— Dennis Lin (@dennistlin) June 22, 2022
Tatis remains further away than Machado, assuming the latter continues to recover. Tatis has not been cleared to swing with full intensity; he estimated that he swung Tuesday with 40 percent effort. Once he adds the final 60 percent, he might be three or four weeks from a return to the lineup. The Padres will not form a more definitive timeline until he embarks on that next step.
They can at least know that, sometime in the future, they should have Machado and Tatis both in the lineup. They can say the same about rehabbing relievers Pierce Johnson and Drew Pomeranz. The Padres are currently without all four players. In a way, those voids have accentuated Melvin’s message.
“And that’s just the start of it,” Melvin said before Wednesday’s game. “We have quite a few guys that can make our team better as we go along. So if we continue to play the way are and winning games like this, we know better things are potentially coming.”
Wednesday’s game began poorly. Mike Clevinger labored through the top of the first, throwing 29 pitches. In his first start since a bout with the flu, he had already used up more than a third of his prescribed pitch count. But he managed to hold the Diamondbacks to no runs.
In the bottom of the first, the Padres immediately supported him with four runs off Madison Bumgarner. The game was never close after that. San Diego scored two more runs in the second. Clevinger finished with four innings of one-run ball.
Afterward, Clevinger offered praise for his manager. Like Melvin, the pitcher has endured a start-and-stop season. Clevinger already has had two stints on the injured list. He still has felt very much a part of the team.
“He’s a player’s manager,” Clevinger said of Melvin. “He’s always checking in on you. You can tell in conversations with him and how he operates the game, he’s here for you. He’s not here for the front office. He’s not here for just wins. He’s still here holding it down for the guys in this clubhouse, and I think it carries a lot of respect with everyone in here.”
Nola, a former Mariners player, recalled how the A’s never were an easy opponent. Melvin’s Oakland teams demonstrated a knack for the comeback.
“If it was a two- or three-run lead in the eighth, they were always coming back. Always,” Nola said. “It was always a trademark. … You had to be beating them by, like, 10.”
On Wednesday, Melvin made a comeback of his own. He had maintained constant contact with his coaches for the past 11 days, but he did not want to micromanage. He appeared in only one video call with the Padres’ hitters, who could feel his frustration amid another compulsory absence.
“He was very pissed about it,” Profar said. “He was mad. But that’s the protocol, and we’re glad and happy to have him back.”
Against the Diamondbacks, they could feel his relief. The Padres, reunited with their manager, won their third consecutive game without either of their biggest bats. As Melvin has preached, it can still get better.
(Photo: Orlando Ramirez / USA TODAY Sports)