SAN DIEGO (AP) — “El Niño” is bringing a welcome wallop to San Diego.
Soon, it could be to all of baseball.
Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. continues to shine as one of baseball’s bright young stars, building on his electrifying first season when he finished third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting despite playing in only 84 games due to injuries.
This summer he’s stronger, smoother on defense and is throwing down some serious dance moves in celebrating big moments, showing exuberance in a game that often is way too serious.
If the 21-year-old Tatis isn’t known around the majors yet, he should be soon. He stands out because of his flair, easy smile, the blond dreadlocks flowing from under his cap and a uniform dirtied by his hard-charging play.
If he can stay healthy, Tatis is a big reason the long-downtrodden Padres believe they’re built to compete in this pandemic-shortened season. Whether it’s for this season or his career, the son of a former major league infielder has lofty goals in leading a franchise that hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2006 or had a winning season since 2010.
“We’re aiming for everything,” Tatis said just before the 60-game season started. “Why not? Let’s go win a World Series.”
On Monday, Tatis was named the NL’s Player of the Week for the first time after hitting six home runs and posting a 1.261 OPS in six games.
Going into Thursday’s games, he was tied with reigning AL MVP Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels with eight homers, one behind New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge. Tatis was tied for the MLB lead with five stolen bases.
Tatis reached base in each of the first 18 games, and 19 straight dating to his last game of 2019, and had a nine-game hitting streak until going 0 for 4 with no walks in Wednesday night’s loss at the Los Angeles Dodgers.
On Sunday, he became the first shortstop in history to hit 30 home runs in his first 100 games and the first player to hit 30-plus homers and steal 20-plus bases.
“When I got signed, I remember telling the scout who signed me, when I get out of this game, I would like to be remembered almost like a Dominican Derek Jeter,” Tatis said this week. “All of the respect he had in the game, all of the World Series he won, all the history he added to this game. I would love to see myself as that.”
Tatis was born into the game. His father was two seasons into an 11-season big league career when Fernando Jr. was born in San Pedro de Macoris — The Cradle of Shortstops — on Jan. 2, 1999. The son spent considerable time tagging along in big league clubhouses and has soaked up plenty of fatherly advice.
There are times when the 6-foor-3 Tatis Jr. makes things look easy.
“El Niño”— Spanish for “little boy” — says it isn’t so.
“This game is not easy at all,” he said. “Just the work we have put in, and the advantage that I had, having a father that played in the big leagues and he was able to teach me the game the right way. I didn’t take that for granted. Everything my dad taught me, it was there and we put it in practice every single time and I think it’s showing up right now.”
Tatis feels he has something in common with other young Latino stars such as countryman Juan Soto of the defending World Series champion Washington Nationals and Venezuelan Ronald Acuña Jr. of the Atlanta Braves, the 2018 NL Rookie of the Year.
“We’re just all hungry,” Tatis said. “Every time I get to the park and the game is about to start, I tell myself, ‘It’s time to make history.’ Every time I get out there, it’s trying to do something special for those people that are watching or even just for the game.”
Tatis was 16 when he signed with the Chicago White Sox and 17 when the Padres acquired him in 2016 in one of the biggest trade heists in recent memory, for James Shields, who’s now out of the game.
Tatis was limited to 84 games as a rookie after missing a month early in the season with a hamstring injury and then getting shut down in mid-August with a stress reaction in his lower back.
He made jaw-dropping plays at shortstop — but also committed 18 errors. He has yet to commit an error this year.
Tatis is fearless on the basepaths, where his speed and ability to disrupt the defense can be game-changers. Last year, he twice scored from second base on infield singles, and twice scored on pop ups to shallow right.
He continues to slide headfirst, even though he broke his left thumb in the minor leagues two years ago.
He’s vowed not to change his style and is hitting the ball with more authority this year, as evidenced by some monster home runs.
“Being 21 years old, he’s a freak athlete,” rookie manager Jayce Tingler said. “He’s getting stronger, he’s lifting, he’s running, he’s moving well.”
And then there’s Tatis’ swagger, which has endeared him to long-suffering Padres fans as well as his teammates.
“He has this aura about him that draws people to him,” Tingler said. “I don’t know if it’s the smile, if it’s the hair, the dance moves, if it’s everything. I’ve got kids. They’re drawn to watching him. They’re drawn to his energy.”
Follow Bernie Wilson on Twitter at https://twitter.com/berniewilson