El Niño returns to San Diego for first time in 582 days

After dealing with injuries and a suspension, Fernando Tatis Jr. returned to San Diego on Monday.

SAN DIEGO — Fernando Tatis Jr. walked into the locker room with sunglasses on to about 10-15 reporters and cameras waiting around his locker. His teammate Rougned Odor turns to him and says in Spanish, “I think they want to talk to you.”

Tatis smiles.

He changes his clothes and then signals to the media that he is ready to speak. This was the first time Tatis was going to speak pregame in the Padres clubhouse since September 2021.

He spoke for about ten minutes, and the word “exciting” kept coming up and wanting to “put on a show for the fans.”

“I’m definitely nervous, but I’ve been looking forward to this time for a very long time,” Tatis said before the game.

This was the first time in 582 days that Tatis would be in front of his home crowd at Petco Park, so nerves were expected.

The last year and a half has been a whirlwind for the young star player.

On December 8, 2021, it was reported that he was in a motorcycle accident that was considered minor.

Spring training came around in March 2022, and a pre-camp physical revealed that he had a fractured scaphoid bone in his left wrist. He would need surgery.

In August 2022, he was to begin his rehab assignment in San Antonio and then join his team that had acquired superstar outfielder Juan Soto from the Washington Nationals to try and make a championship push.

Tatis is informed that he has been suspended 80 games for using Clostebol, a banned substance in the MLB.

Padres’ general manager A.J. Preller used words like “maturity” and “trust” while his teammates hoped he would learn from what he was going through.

He was asked about it before his first game against the Cincinnati Reds and didn’t shy away.

“It’s a long road,” Tatis explained. “This not going to be a week or two-week thing. I’m looking forward to the challenge for the next 15 or 20 years. So, I’m just getting started.”

The first sign of maturity is acknowledging that it will take a while to earn everyone’s trust back, but he is willing to work for it.

He had to watch his teammates battle against the New York Mets, upset the division rival L.A. Dodgers, and meet up with the Philadelphia Phillies in the NLCS. The Padres didn’t have enough juice against the Phillies.

The questions began, “What if Tatis would have been part of the team?”

Those questions lingered until about February, but after fan fest, the question was, “How long until he returns to the lineup?”

He was asked before the game what he thought about the fans who stuck by him through the accident and the suspension.

“I couldn’t ask for better, and I’m just grateful for how they’ve been,” Tatis said. “It’s even more motivation to keep performing, to keep playing harder, and to keep working harder.”

For some fans, it was upsetting knowing that he would be on the road in Arizona, head to Chicago, and end in Mexico City before returning to San Diego.

The cheers rained down at Petco Park when Tatis ran onto the field to warm up defensively. The fans stood up to acknowledge their superstar as he waved and gave them a thank-you clap.

“Showing a little respect to my fans, and just happy to be back out there,” Tatis said.

The beginning of the game felt like someone was writing a script because Cincinnati Reds second baseman Jonathan India hit the ball right towards right field on the first play that Tatis caught with ease. The fans loved it.

After three quick outs, it was time for the Padres’ leadoff batter to walk up.

When the voice of Alex Miniak announced that Fernando Tatis Jr. was up to bat, the walk-up music for the Dominican-born player was drowned out by the cheers raining down on Petco Park.

The nerves and goosebumps the 24-year-old felt as he prepared to take his first swing in front of his crowd in over 580 days.

“I feel like, after the first swing, everything came down, and then I was like, ‘Okay, now we go,'” Tatis said.

It took him a couple of pitches before he hit an infield single and raced to first base to beat the throw. “Fernando!” “Fernando!” could be heard.

Third baseman Manny Machado was walked. Then came Juan Soto, who, until his return, had never played with Tatis. The Padres made a blockbuster trade last season during the trade deadline, literally giving up the farm for the superstar outfielder.

Soto hit one deep to center field that brought in Tatis and Machado. This was the first time all three superstars played together at Petco Park.

“It is amazing,” Tatis said. “Hopefully, we will keep making history together for a very long time.”

He ended the night going three for five while also making a great grab in right field that had the fans animated. This was also the first season in which Tatis made the jump from playing shortstop to playing right field.

The Padres signed Xander Bogaerts to a massive deal in the offseason to play shortstop, so Tatis had to transition to the outfield, which manager Bob Melvin believes has been smooth.

“He’s been great,” Melvin said. “Shoot, he can play any position, probably in any sport. So, it’s not easy for going from shortstop to the outfield; he makes it look easy.”

It was a good return from Tatis as he felt the love from San Diego. It is no secret that his return to the lineup has helped the Padres tremendously. They have won seven out of their last ten while also bringing in runs a lot more consistently including beating the Reds 8-3 Monday night.

It is like he has given them the jolt they need to get back to their winning ways.

“You’re talking about one of the premier players in the game,” Melvin explained. “So, obviously, he’s going to make a difference just with the energy level and what he brings to the table every day, certainly to production. So, he’s still kind of finding his way and getting at-bats after a long time off but pretty impactful guy at the top of the lineup.”

Now for him, it is about staying healthy and getting more comfortable with his new position. The hitting part is like riding a bike. That is why he is already at .304 with two home runs in only ten games.

The return of Fernando Tatis Jr. means the Padres can now focus on their primary goal: bringing the first championship to San Diego.

“It’s just going to get better from here,” Tatis said.