The home nine arrived at Chavez Ravine on Sunday afternoon as victims of a theft so blatant it should have rattled them to their blue bones.
In a video that surfaced after the Dodgers’ Saturday night victory here over San Diego, it was clear that the Padres’ Fernando Tatis Jr. had sneaked a peek at catcher Will Smith’s positioning just before hitting his second home run of the game.
Yeah, the organization that was cheated out of the 2017 World Series championship by the Houston Astros once again had been robbed, embarrassed and played for fools.
What to do, then, on Sunday?
Do they pitch Tatis inside? Do they back him off the plate? Short of intentionally hitting him, do they do anything else to make him, you know … uncomfortable?
Would they send a message that they will not allow themselves to be owned by a free-swinging kid with a wandering eye?
They would not, and they paid for their indifference.
Tatis owned the batters’ box, owned the plate, and basically again owned the Dodgers as the Padres stunningly came back from a six-run deficit to steal an 8-7 victory in 11 innings.
No, they rarely pitched him inside. No, they rarely backed him off the plate. Allowed to roam the batters’ box freely, Tatis turned Dodger Stadium into his personal playground. He reached out and homered in the fourth, singled and scored the tying run in the ninth, then stole third and scored the winning run in the 11th. He also walked twice, stole another base, and scored another run.
He did strike out with runners on second and third in the 10th, perhaps not coincidentally after two inside pitches from Jimmy Nelson, including one that brought him to his knees.
But by then, the damage caused by the Dodgers’ reluctance to unsettle him had been done.
In the last three games of this four-game series, Tatis went seven for 14 with five home runs, six RBIs and six runs scored.
When asked if his pitchers should have been more aggressive with Tatis, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts thought starter Dustin May did a fine job, but acknowledged it went downhill from there.
“You know, I thought Dustin did a very good job of mixing the looks, making him feel him inside, then spinning him away, pitched him up a bit, but after that, I don’t think we did a good job,” Roberts said.
If this dramatic, season-opening tussle were a playoff series, the Padres would have just won it, four games to three. But there’s a dozen games remaining between these neighbors, the battles resuming June 21 in San Diego and not ending until the season’s final week at Dodger Stadium.
That will give the Dodgers plenty of time to start being more aggressive with Tatis, who’s ownership of this series was epitomized by a scene in the stands behind home plate as the Dodgers were blowing a seven-run lead.
A fan in a Tatis jersey stood and began popping and pointing to his shirt.
Nobody said a word.
The Dodgers need to speak up.
After what happened in the previous 24 hours, and after what happened in 2017, it was a game that cried out for a statement.
On Saturday night in the sixth inning, Tatis reached far across home plate and powered a Trevor Bauer slider into the left-field seats for his second home run of the game and fourth of the weekend series.
It was a stretch-and-swing so unlikely, observers wondered, how did he do that?
It turns out, tweeted video later showed he stole his way to the pitch by glancing down at where catcher Will Smith was setting up. When he saw Smith leaning toward the outside of the plate, he lunged toward the outside, enabling him to solidly connect on the slider.
Tatis wasn’t officially breaking the rules, but he was clearly stealing, and Bauer understandably wasn’t thrilled. While Bauer openly and smartly embraced Tatis’ home run celebrations, he pushed back against what he considers cheating.
Bauer tweeted, “If you need to know what pitch is coming that badly, just ask daddy nicely next time. You know I ain’t scared homie.”
Tatis responded by tweeting a photo of himself holding a toddler with Bauer’s face on it, accompanied by the words, “Tranquilo Hijo,” which translate to, “Calm down son.”
Bauer later elaborated on his YouTube channel and, no, he wasn’t calming down.
“Am I mad about the celebrations and the bat flips and all that stuff?” he asked. “No. however, if you start looking at signs, if you start pulling this bush league stuff, that’s when people get pissed off. Baseball policing itself, this is where it would happen … there’s no rule that says you can’t look back … there’s no rule that says I can’t stick a fastball in your ribs. And that’s kind of how it’s been handled traditionally in baseball up until this point.”
After Sunday’s game, the Padres’ Eric Hosmer defended his teammate, saying, “I think that was maybe a bit of confusion on their part. I don’t think Tati was looking at signs. I’ve never really seen him do that. I certainly didn’t see it last night during the game.”
Yet when Roberts was asked about the brewing controversy, he made it clear that Tatis’ actions were unacceptable.
“When you talk about ‘peeking,’ that’s just not the way you play baseball,” Roberts said, later adding, “If that is the case, which I don’t know, that will be noted.”
When he was asked if ‘noted’ meant making adjustments by the catcher, he said, “No, that’s not what I’m talking about.”
Folks around the ballpark were wondering if Tatis’ actions would be “noted” immediately Sunday by hard-throwing May, who was brilliant with six innings of two-hit ball and 10 strikeouts. They were not.
In the first inning, Tatis grounded out on four pitches, none of which made him the least bit uneasy.
In the fourth, as Tatis was coming to the plate, organist Dieter Ruehle played “The Sign” by Ace of Base, whose hook goes, “I saw the sign, and it opened up my eyes.”
It didn’t open the Dodgers’ eyes. After a first pitch that strayed a bit inside, May allowed Tatis to use the entire plate again, and four pitches later he slammed a ball over the center field fence for yet another homer.
Then, in the ninth against Nelson, Tatis singled and eventually scored the tying run, sending this game into its nutty extra innings.
Who knows if he was again stealing signs? The only certainty is that, with the Dodgers helplessly watching, he stole a series.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.
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