Welcome Back? Fernando Tatis Jr. Returns to Padres

Padres' star made his 2023 debut with a lot of road support.

For a controversial player coming back from a performance-enhancing drug suspension, the San Diego Padres couldn’t have scripted a better place for Fernando Tatis Jr. to make his 2023 debut.

A 2023 debut at Petco Park would have been too easy. When Tatis played his first MLB game since the 2022 season on Thursday against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field in Phoenix, it was the friendliest of confines outside the Gaslamp District.

Despite being a rival in the National League West and an up-and-coming team doing well so far in 2023, the D’backs don’t exactly draw a large audience at their downtown ballpark. It was the perfect opportunity for a bunch of Padres fans to make the five-hour drive to support Tatis, who would have faced a stadium full of boo-birds pretty much anywhere else. Yes, he was still booed, but not to the extent he would have been at Dodger Stadium, Oracle Park, or a contender elsewhere.

The fact that Tatis went 0-for-5 with two strikeouts in his first game in 563 days almost didn’t matter. The Padres won 7-5, and the energy around the club was different with Tatis back in the leadoff spot in the batting order and in the new defensive position of right field.

“I embraced every single moment,” Tatis said.

Tatis did make his presence felt with a nice running grab, proving that he could handle his new position (not that there was much doubt about that.)

Where the doubt lies with Tatis is whether he has learned any lessons since his final at-bat of the 2021 season. In that offseason, the one where the owners locked out the players, Tatis broke his left wrist in a motorcycle accident. That injury wasn’t brought to the Padres’ attention due to the lockout, as such communication between clubs and players was forbidden.

So Tatis had surgery, then began the process of coming back from his injury. Tatis was nearing a return to MLB when, during a rehab assignment in the minors, he was popped for an 80-game suspension for using the PED clostebol. Tatis initially manufactured a story saying he used it to treat ringworm, but the facts didn’t add up. Teammates were angry and frustrated, with Tatis’ maturity called into question. There was a silver lining in the suspension, however, as Tatis finally had surgery on his balky left shoulder and a second surgery on his left wrist. There are no injury concerns at the moment.

A lot has been thrown at Tatis, success and failure, and he hasn’t handled everything well. But you have to remember that he turned 24 on January 2nd. The 2023 season is a critical one for Tatis. He is an MVP-caliber player who at one point was the unquestioned leader of the Padres while playing the most important position (other than pitcher.) The leadership mantle was taken over by third baseman Manny Machado, and Tatis’ position by Xander Bogaerts.

Now, his comeback begins with him patrolling right field. His offense will be as important as anything. There was no question from manager Bob Melvin that Tatis would be back in the leadoff spot and, based on his spring training performance, he will have freedom to steal on the base paths.

Tatis began the four-game series against the Diamondbacks 0-for-7 before finally hitting a single in Friday’s 9-0 loss. On Saturday, in his first plate appearance, Tatis drilled an 0-2 offering from Merrill Kelly for his first homer of 2023.

With his trademark “stutter-step” going around third base, Tatis was back. It might take a few more games to get into a groove, but first getting that initial hit, then homer No. 1 in his first three games lifted any pressure to perform. The Padres took three of four from the D’backs to pull even at 12-12.

Now, the tougher venues will start to pop up on the schedule. Tonight, the Padres continue their seven-game road trip with the first of three against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. Tatis, with his three-game hitting streak, will certainly be jeered by Cubs fans. The Padres next head to Mexico City for a two-game weekend “home” series against the San Francisco Giants. That will also be a friendly spot for Tatis. Then, they return to Petco Park to face the Cincinnati Reds before the Los Angeles Dodgers come to town.

By then, Tatis should be fully re-acclimated to the Padres’ clubhouse. The next road trip sees the Padres heading back to the Midwest to take on the Minnesota Twins. After that, Tatis will surely face hostility when the Padres visit the Los Angeles Dodgers for a three-game series May 12th-14th. At that point, Tatis will have been back for three weeks.

Not that he wouldn’t have otherwise, but Tatis will relish the boos.

Steve Drumwright

Steve Drumwright is a lifelong baseball fan who retired as a player before he had the chance to be cut from the freshman team in high school. He recovered to become a sportswriter and have a successful journalism career at newspapers in Wisconsin and California. Follow him on Twitter and Threads @DrummerWrites.

One response to “Welcome Back? Fernando Tatis Jr. Returns to Padres”

  1. Virginia Ganskie says:

    No Giants fan should boo Tatis. Why? Because their “ace”, Logan Webb, was suspended 80 games because of the same issue.

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