Manny Machado continues to drive the Padres’ success

SAN DIEGO — In a suite at the Delano hotel in Las Vegas during the 2018 Winter Meetings, the Padres front office was growing frustrated. They didn’t like the price tags on some of free agency’s middle third basemen. The trade market was churning slower than usual, too.

Late one night — or early one morning, it’s all a bit hazy — general manager AJ Preller phoned assistant GM Josh Stein with an idea so painfully obvious.

“Let’s just sign Machado,” Preller famously said.

And, really, that’s when this started. All of this.

On Friday night, the Padres host the Dodgers in Game 3 of the NLDS, the first playoff game before fans in San Diego in 16 years. It’s worth wondering: Is any of this possible without Manny Machado?

In what’s been a turbulent season for the Padres, Machado has been the stabilizing force. He posted what is undeniably one of the best seasons in Padres history — leading the National League with 7.4 fWAR while hitting .298/.366/.531 with his usual Gold-Glove-caliber defense. The last Padre with a higher WAR — Ken Caminiti in 1996 — was the last Padre to win MVP.

Machado’s teammates insist those numbers tell only half the story. When Machado sustained a gruesome ankle injury in late June, the team wondered whether he might be out for months. He returned in 10 days. Machado played hurt, and his numbers took a hit — his .694 OPS in July was easily his lowest of any month. Booth with Fernando Tatis Jr. on the IL and Trade Deadline reinforcements not yet on the way, the Padres needed every bit of Machado’s contributions.

Then, in early August, the Padres welcomed Juan Soto, Josh Hader, Josh Bell and Brandon Drury at the Deadline. It can be hard to shake up a clubhouse midseason, but Soto said he always felt welcome.

“Manny is the most important thing, because he’s kind of the captain of the team,” Soto said. “So if the captain makes you feel comfortable, that’s a huge thing. He was just telling me how things work in there and how we’ve got to be. I think I was agreeing with mostly everything that was going on in there, and I felt good with it.”

The Padres don’t bestow the title of “Captain,” but make no mistake — it’s Machado.

“He’s our leader,” said Game 3 starter Blake Snell. “He’s the guy that everyone looks at.”

Said manager Bob Melvin: “He’s very much the guy, so to speak, in the clubhouse. … It’s tough enough being the guy on the field and having to perform. It’s even more difficult to be the guy in the clubhouse. And he does it like he does on the field — there’s an easiness to it.”

In the offseason of 2018-19, they paid a premium for it. Those weren’t the same Padres back then. They’d just completed their eighth consecutive losing season. They’d spent money to extend Wil Myers and sign Eric Hosmer, but they’d never — in their entire history — signed a player like Machado.

In the months following that Winter Meetings revelation, the Padres put the wheels in motion. Ownership signed off on the pursuit of Machado, and in mid-February, he signed a 10-year, $300 million deal, the richest free-agent contract in American sports history at the time.

Then the manager of the A’s, Melvin sat up and took note.

“I remember the years and the dollars and I went, ‘Wow,'” Melvin recalled. “But that’s what you pay for. When you look at long-term contracts like that, you’re not really sure how they’re going to play out. But what he’s done here — what he continues to do and what he’s done this year, this deep into his contract — this is one of the better contracts out there.

“At the time you’re going, ‘Wow, how can anybody really perform to that level?’ But he certainly has.”

Four years into that contract, this feels like Machado’s team. And, suddenly, this feels like Machado’s moment. The Padres entered the NLDS as underdogs against the team with the most wins in baseball. If ever they needed an MVP-caliber Machado, it was now.

“We know that they’re the division champs,” Machado said. “They own the best record in baseball. They’ve played very well against us all year. But at the end of the day we’re going to compete. We’re going to leave it on the field.”

When San Diego lost Game 1, David Ortiz proclaimed the Dodgers to be the Padres’ “daddy” on national TV. Then, a night later, Machado opened the scoring with a laser home run in the first inning off Clayton Kershaw. He watched the ball settle in the left-field seats, then glared into the Padres’ dugout. The message was clear: He had this. They had this.

After going 2-for-5 with a homer, a double and some brilliant glovework in the Padres’ Game 2 victory, Machado texted Ortiz, who noted on air that San Diego’s third baseman had fired back with two simple words: “Now what? “

Before he reached free agency four years ago, Machado spent the 2018 postseason with the Dodgers. His experience was decidedly different. He batted just .227 and drew headlines more for controversy than his play on the field.

That feels like ancient history now. If Machado was a volatile presence that October, he feels precisely the opposite in 2022 — a stabilizing presence for a team hellbent on shocking the baseball world.

“You just evolve,” Machado said of learning from his past playoff experiences. “That’s just the human nature of things. You learn from the mistakes, you learn from the good and learn from the bad. It’s all about evolving.”

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