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Manny Machado is back (at third base). Now, when will the old Joe Musgrove return?

Written by on April 27, 2024

SAN DIEGO — Manny Machado wore a smile on his face and, for the first time since August, a third baseman’s glove in a major-league game. It was the top of the first inning Friday at Petco Park, the first ball put into the field of play had been grounded to Machado, and the San Diego Padres infielder had handled it with a familiar, graceful ease. There are worse ways to return from paternity leave than finally getting back to what made you a star.

“There’s nothing,” Machado said earlier, “that can replace just playing baseball.”

Machado had not simultaneously played both sides of the sport in close to eight months. He played through a worsening case of tennis elbow for parts of the past two years. In the final month of the 2023 season, he served exclusively as a designated hitter. In October, he underwent right elbow extensor tendon repair. In February, he experienced an unspecified setback while going through his throwing program. He opened this season as, again, an everyday designated hitter. The Padres targeted late April for his official reinstatement at third base, and following a four-day break to attend to the birth of his first child, Machado indeed was back at his old spot.

His presence there, the day after a brutal loss at Coors Field, felt reassuring.

“Life is good for the Machados and for the Padres,” manager Mike Shildt said before Friday’s game.

A few hours later, the promise brought by Machado’s return to two-way play was tempered by a career-worst outing for another clubhouse leader. An at-bat before Machado recorded his first 5-3 putout of the year, Joe Musgrove missed his target and watched Kyle Schwarber deposit a cutter in the right-field seats. In what ended as a 9-3 rout at the hands of the Philadelphia Phillies, it was only the beginning.

Musgrove would surrender a total of four homers, the most against him in a major-league game, before his fourth-inning exit. The Philadelphia Phillies torched him for seven runs on two walks and eight hits, including three doubles, as Musgrove continued to spray pitches. Hours after recalling Jeremiah Estrada from Triple A, the Padres asked the reliever for seven outs and 34 pitches.

Setting aside the possibility that Estrada’s workload could mean a swift return to the El Paso Chihuahuas, his performance was one of the few positives from a mostly rotten night. Estrada allowed an inherited runner to score, but otherwise resembled the right-handed power pitcher San Diego’s bullpen could very much use. He got three swings-and-misses with his splitter, and his metrically elite fastball topped out at 98 mph.

It also stood in contrast to the repertoire of a veteran who has not looked like his former All-Star self since the start of spring training. After being shut down with shoulder capsule inflammation in August, how healthy is Musgrove?

“I go through aches and pains constantly throughout a year, but nothing right now that feels like it’s detrimental and gonna keep me from going out there,” Musgrove said. “I feel good enough to go.”

Yet the results, Musgrove acknowledged, have not been nearly good enough.

“Outs are hard to come by right now,” he said.

Musgrove’s 6.94 ERA is the highest among qualifying big-league pitchers and his highest across a seven-start span since 2017, when he was a young Houston Astros righty trying to establish himself in the majors. He entered Friday’s game with an average fastball velocity of 92.3 mph — down 0.7 mph from last year’s average — and soon after he served up his fourth home run of the night, on a third-inning slider to Nick Castellanos, Musgrove threw his hardest pitch of the season.

It registered at 94.1 mph. Johan Rojas took the four-seam fastball for a called strike.

“Everyone hits a point in their outings where you kind of throw caution to the wind and you just start going at ’em,” said Musgrove, who averaged 92.3 mph with 35 fastballs — and threw 69 pitches of at least 94.1 mph across 17 starts last season. “So, a little bit of (frustration), but my averages, I feel like are starting to tick up. I’m getting closer into the ranges that I’ve been. I’m starting to feel a little better. I just got to start executing a little better.”

Musgrove threw 91 pitches before he was lifted Friday. Amid torrents of hard contact, he induced 15 swings-and-misses, including seven with his slider. Shildt, who publicly backed veteran reliever Wandy Peralta after a four-run implosion Thursday, aired his belief in another of his players.

“The stuff’s there. The crispness of pitches have been there recently. The breaking ball’s been there. The slider’s improved. The fastball’s had some life to it,” Shildt said. “It’s just about being able to finish out hitters, and sometimes you run through a place where you’re over the plate a little bit too much and you pay for it, and Joe’s in that mix a little bit. He’ll be fine.

“I mean, it’s Joe Musgrove. The care factor is super high. The work ethic’s off the charts. The dedication to this team being great is high. And he’s delivered for this organization quite a bit, and there’s a lot of bright moments in the future for Joe. … I know it’s eating at him a little bit, but it only fuels Joe. So, I’m confident he’s gonna be in a good spot for a long time this season.”

Musgrove’s past three seasons — a stretch in which he logged a 3.05 ERA, threw the Padres’ first no-hitter and supplied two memorable performances in the 2022 playoffs — featured some of the heaviest breaking-ball usage of any starter. He felt last summer that the shapes of his curveball and slider were beginning to blend together, so over the offseason, he began working on a slider that featured more horizontal movement.

His evolving repertoire remains a clear work in progress. Musgrove said late Friday that, against the Phillies, he lacked “anything that even remotely resembled a curveball. … I think maybe a little bit of a new slider grip has altered some of the rotation of my breaking balls.” He explained he was still seeking a consistent feel for those pitches, as well as greater conviction that they would land where he wanted them to land. He added that he felt close to turning a corner.

“I got to be a little better, and I’m excited,” Musgrove said. “I’m ready to put some work in. I’m tired of feeling like this after starts.”

He admitted that he had said similar things after recent outings.

“I haven’t struggled this consistently,” Musgrove said. “Even my last two outings … it’s like I’m working so f——g hard to get through six or seven (inninigs) with three (runs allowed). In the past, seven and three has been, like, a bad night for me.”

Friday, for the Padres, was not all bad. Estrada displayed the kind of stuff that could make him a significant factor this season. Center fielder Jackson Merrill was held out for a second consecutive game with right groin tightness, even as Shildt cast his health as a positive: “I love the fact that it looks like we’re getting this behind us, but I want to make sure it’s behind us.” Another rookie, Graham Pauley, hit his second big-league home run off Aaron Nola and nearly homered in an earlier at-bat. Machado went 1-for-4 with two strikeouts but, given immediate chances at third base, also resembled his old self on defense.

The Padres plan to be cautious as they build him back to playing the position every day. Machado is expected to serve as the designated hitter Saturday before a likely return to third in the series finale.

Meanwhile, another 31-year-old striving to find his former rhythm struck a balance between optimism and pragmatism.

“It’s not a good tone to set on the first game of the series,” Musgrove said. “We got (Phillies starter) Ranger Suárez, who’s on a f——g 20-something(-inning scoreless streak) coming into this, and Taijuan (Walker) has a good arm as well. So, it’s frustrating, man. But … we got a f——g lot of season to go, and I could sit here and sulk and feel bad for myself, or I can get back to work.”

(Top photo of Joe Musgrove: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports)

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