Fernando Tadis Jr returns to the big stage: ‘It won’t be easy’

SAN DIEGO — It may seem like forever ago, but the memory is vivid for Philip Wellman. On September 10, 2017, the longtime Double-A manager and his San Antonio team picked up two hits in a playoff loss that ended their season. That game was even more memorable. One of those two hits was a home run off the bat of a teenage leadoff hitter named Fernando Tadis Jr.

The then-shortstop prospect was aggressively promoted from Low A a few weeks ago. The following season, Tadis started with San Antonio and hit .286 with 16 home runs and 16 stolen bases. The following spring, he made the Padres’ Opening Day roster and major league star. He appeared unfazed by the spotlight, just as he was playing in the Texas League postseason as an 18-year-old.

“The bigger the situation, the harder somebody throws,” Wellman said, “the bigger the chance he’s going to advance.”

Based on the events of the last 18 months, this week will bring the biggest phase of Tattis’ life. The former infielder and budding outfielder was once anointed as the new face of the game. A precipitous fall from grace followed: an off-season motorcycle accident and, three months later, a fractured wrist. A brief rehab stint with San Antonio and the bombshell announcement of an 80-game steroid suspension. The spurred postseason run unfolded as Daddies, barred from enjoying sold-out stadiums, watched from afar.

Yet his absence from the line-up has not diminished his popularity. Lately, it has been a source of intense anticipation. On Wednesday afternoon, Tadis will serve up the final game of his suspension as the most expensive Padres team in history tries to avoid being swept at home. Later, he will fly to Phoenix with the club. On Thursday night, he will lead off at Chase Field in his first major league game in 564 days.

Despite the layoff, an expectant fan base sees Tatis as a potential savior. His teammates are excitedly discussing his ability to fuel a loaded but frustrating offense. In Tuesday’s 8-1 loss to the Braves, the Padres sank three games below .500. They have scored just once in their last three games.

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Tatis, therefore, represents instant energy. In his most recent three games, he hit six home runs while demolishing minor-league pitching. He finished a rehab stint with Triple-A El Paso last weekend with 17 hits in 33 at-bats.

“I hope this transitions to the big leagues and goes with him because I think he’s very special,” said Wellman, El Paso’s first-year manager. “You know, it’s not really a surprise. It’s unbelievable, considering he was 18 years old.

Tatis is now 24 years old, and during his time with El Paso, he was still the second youngest player on the roster. He was also the greatest force Southwestern University Park had ever seen. When he pitched against Triple-A pitching, he inspired the kind of superlatives that once defined his ascension.

“It’s great, especially for those fans,” catcher Brett Sullivan said after being recalled from El Paso on Monday. “You go down the road and see the best player in baseball, you know?”

To many, Tatis faces a long road to reclaiming his reputation and re-establishing himself as a legitimate superstar. But the past few weeks have created a compelling lead. With El Paso, Tatis showed off his formidable power and the apparent health of a surgically repaired shoulder and surgically repaired wrist. He showed improvement in right field, where his right arm and athleticism are consistent threats. He walked six times and struck out twice. He moved from first to third on a direct hit ball to center fielder.

According to a minor-league manager who knew him well, Tadis brought a similar energy to his daily workouts.

“He went about his business the way any other Triple-A player would go about it,” Wellman said. “I wouldn’t consider him a Triple-A player by any means, but he took it seriously. … I think he could smell it. He knew he was going to be in the big leagues in two weeks and he wanted to make sure he was ready.

Fernando Tadis Jr. hit .515 with seven home runs during an eight-game rehab stint with Triple-A El Paso. (Mark J. Repilas/USA Today)

A rousing reception awaits him at Chase Field and every other ballpark down the road. Tadis pitched in four games at Sutter Health Park, the Giants’ Triple-A facility. After he homered in the second game, it was the pitcher who delivered the blast Calling him a “cheater”. People close to Tatis say he seems to be handling the barb well, describing it as something he can’t control. (Tadis, who has not granted an interview since the end of spring training, is expected to speak to reporters on Thursday.)

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But there’s more to come. Sutter Health Park can only hold about 10,000 people. Tatis’ teammates have pledged their support after hearing him make a private and public apology for his transgressions last August.

“We know it’s not going to be easy for him on the road,” said Joe Musgrove, who will make his home season debut Saturday in Phoenix. “He’s going to hear it from the fans, but we’re rooting for him. I think we’ve all gone through that in this room, we’ve accepted him for who he is moving forward and we’ve accepted what he’s done coming back.

Of course, there are additional reasons for the positivity surrounding Tattis’ comeback.

“Aside from what he does on the field, he’s an infectious type of person with his attitude and mindset and the way he approaches the game,” Musgrove said. “It’s somewhat of a relief to have a guy with that kind of confidence and that kind of talent in your lineup every night.”

The Padres will have to wait a little longer to experience true relief. On Tuesday afternoon, Tadis took live batting practice at Petco Park. Then, as per the terms of his suspension, he left the building before the doors were opened to fans. He watched from a vantage point as the San Diego offense ran its scoreless streak through 25 innings before scoring a run.

After that, his absence was about another bad decision. However, can the Padres realistically expect one player to change everything? Again, Daddies did not appear in a major league game in 563 days.

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“It’s hard to fit a guy, but I think the combination of him and Joe gives us a little bit of confidence,” manager Bob Melvin said. “That’s how the game goes sometimes.”

“Sometimes somebody can fuel the offense,” Matt Carpenter said. “It will be good to bring Dotty here in two days. Maybe it lights a fire under us too.

“Just his name, man. His name, his presence, that goes a long way,” Xander Bogaerts said. “He can do a lot of different things. He is dynamic. He is truly impressive. “

Bogaerts, the Padres’ latest blockbuster acquisition, hasn’t played a regular-season game with Tatis, though the former Red Sox star has long admired the younger man’s five-tool skills. Earlier this week, Bogaerts compared Tattis’ dominance of Triple A to what one might see in a video game.

Soon, the Padres will learn if Tatis can change that. The stakes, for everyone involved, have never been higher. The team’s poor performance has sharpened the focus. It’s early, but it feels like there’s a certain lack of slack, unlike when the Padres woke up in October without their most electric player.

However, a possible solution is now apparent. For a productive eight games in Triple A, Tadis looked like he was 18 years old again.

“You know what? He was happy,” Wellman said. “He was happy. He was so happy to be out, it was like watching a little kid play again. He was so happy to be out there and compete and run the bases and be free.

(Photo: Brandon Vallance/Getty Images)

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