When players hold themselves accountable, not ducking the harder questions, it’s admirable and—to enough people—rare enough. When a player willing to hold himself accountable seeks to do so without being asked first, that’s not just somewhat out of the standard box, it ought to give him some kind of share of some kind of prize.
Case in point: Emilio Pagán, Padres relief pitcher. In a game meaning nothing to the Padres anymore but everything to the Dodgers Wednesday night, the Dodgers bludgeoned Pagán and fellow bullpen bull Nabil Crismatt for five home runs—Pagan for three, Crismatt for two.
All when the Padres entered the bottom of the eighth holding a nice 9-6 lead including battering Max Scherzer, of all people, for six runs in six innings. The inning ended with the Dodgers leading 11-9, holding on to win by that score Wednesday night, and the Padres wondering further just when things like a disconnect between the clubhouse and the front office would be redressed.
Pagán got torn back-to-back by Max Muncy and A.J. Pollock, then by Cody Bellinger one out later, to tie the game. Crismatt got pounded for the one that mattered, Corey Seager’s two-out, two-run shell into the right field bleachers to yank the Dodgers ahead. Some thought that eighth-inning meltdown was too emblematic of the Padres’ seasonal dissipation.
They were supposed to win the West this year, right? They were anointed World Series champions in waiting this year, by enough commentators, right? They had the hottest young star in baseball this side of Shohei Ohtani, a solid pitching staff, and were just itching to lay the division to waste, if not the league, right? That’s what you all heard too much of coming out of spring training, right?
Didn’t happen. And while plenty of teams had to find ways around the ferocious enough injury bugs this year, the Padres couldn’t and didn’t, if not wouldn’t.
They became testy in the clubhouse as the season went forward. Enough players reportedly became more disillusioned with oft-overwhelmed manager Jayce Tingler. Enough became just as dismayed by seemingly half-connected general manager A.J. Preller, whose reputed genius at scouting and building was undermined this year by failures at true fortification at the trade deadline and a sense that he’s out of touch with his clubhouse, willfully or otherwise.
So when Pagán buttonholed San Diego Union-Tribune writer Kevin Acee, Acee was only too willing to listen and write. The righthander who surrendered the home run that just about killed what remained of the Padres’ season in St. Louis—Tyler O’Neill’s two-run blast in the bottom of the eighth on 18 September—had more to say.
He’s said in the recent past how nice it is to be part of a team as talented as the Padres actually are. But now, by holding himself up to task, he implied without saying that such talented teams should be just as accountable above and beyond the real issues beyond their control.
“We scored nine runs in a game that Max Scherzer starts,” Pagán told Acee. “You’ve got to win that game. I mean, plain and simple. I love this game too much to not look at the numbers and not look at the results like I’ve got to take some of this. I can’t just be upset, I’ve got to look at it and grow from it and come into next series, next season a better pitcher.”
Acee indicated the two spoke after Pagán reviewed video of his outing, asked coaches whether he was tipping pitches, pondered trying to develop a third pitch during the offseason, and lamented that he felt his pitches were both getting better in the season’s second half but he was “getting my teeth kicked in. So it hasn’t been a lot of fun.
“I’m going to look at everything because, as laughable as this comment is, I’m just too good for this,” Pagán continued. “I know type of talent that I can be on the mound. Unfortunately for the San Diego Padres organization I haven’t been what I can. And that’ll change. If I’m kept around, I will get better. I don’t know if I’ve been this angry in a long time at my individual performance on a baseball field, so I’ll get better. I care about this game too much to not get better.”
A 2.31 ERA for the 2019 Rays suggests Pagán can still fix whatever went wrong for him this season. An attitude such as he showed in seeking Acee out before the scribe could seek and question him first suggests wisdom beyond his 30 years.
“In these times of pandemic-induced postgame zooms,” Acee wrote, “the media often does not get to immediately speak to players involved in key plays. But Pagán, being both a veteran who has been around when clubhouses have been open and an honorable man, was willing to face questions before I could even ask if he would.”
Preller seems to leave somewhat different and contradictory impressions, according to Athletic writers Ken Rosenthal, Dennis Lin, and Eno Sarris:
The combination of an untested manager, veteran coaches with strong personalities and prominent players with strong personalities has sometimes proven volatile. A pair of confrontations in the dugout two weeks ago . . . attracted national attention, but according to sources, there have been an unusual number of heated moments this season, including when the Padres were well above .500. Some of the same sources have questioned whether front-office executives have enough empathy for those navigating complex situations inside the clubhouse.
“I don’t think (Preller) feels that at all,” said one former coach.
If there’s a further shakeup in the Padres’ offseason to come, it seems as though few would be surprised. If a new, more experienced and attuned manager is on the priority list, it may be easier said than done bringing aboard someone else Preller may or may not think he can command at will.
Whomever it proves to be, he’ll have at least one veteran relief pitcher on board with the concept and the continuing practise of accountability.