Column: Tricky pitching juggle involving Paddack put Padres in tough spot

There simply was no easy way to find the spoonful of sugar to make the Padres pitching medicine go down.

When salty starters Dinelson Lamet and Mike Clevinger were bounced off the Wild Card Series roster for arm ailments, GM A.J. Preller and manager Jayce Tingler adroitly tap-danced around questions about specifics and severity.

Instead of NL Cy Young contender Lamet, instead of rock-steady Clevinger, the game-weary Cardinals salivated at the chance to face Jekyll and Hyde option Chris Paddack in Game 1 on Wednesday at Petco Park.

Hyde toed the rubber as the Cardinals piled up four runs in the first inning.

“We were hoping to get him going and get all the way through (the second),” manager Jayce Tinger said after the Cardinals rode the early wave to a 7-4 win and 1-0 edge in the best-of-three series. “Truthfully, we needed him to settle in.”

Armchair managers claim the situation was simple: Pitch anyone other than Paddack, who began the season with the ball on opening day before playing himself down to No. 4 in the rotation.

Why not move up Zach Davies, the Game 2 starter who would jog to the mound on short rest despite throwing a somewhat palatable 51 pitches Saturday in San Francisco? Why not recall Garrett Richards, the veteran starter the Padres shipped off to buffer the bullpen?

The tricky reality is that almost no team, if any team, is built to overcome the loss of the top two spots in the rotation for a short series in the playoffs. If that happens, all bets are fully and frantically off.

For those who wanted to shuffle the deck on short notice, imagine Davies or Richards being tripped up in the series opener under odd conditions and facing the unsettling reality of Paddack owning the Padres’ fate in an elimination game?

Now, that’s a spot that calls for a Volkswagen full of Rolaids.

So, the Padres rolled the dice. The Cardinals hammered those dice into the heart of Balboa Park.

“It’s no secret, from a starting pitching standpoint, we’re not as deep as we were a week ago,” Tingler said.

The clearest misstep, however, was Tingler sticking with Paddack at least a hitter or two too long. Throwing Davies last weekend against the Giants in a meaningless game invites fair debate, as well.

“Now our back’s against the wall,” Tingler said. “… Let’s find out who we are.”

If Wednesday was a win-or-go-home game, Davies would trot out without question. Keeping the trustworthy arm on his regular routine for what now becomes the Padres’ biggest game of season likely was safer, though, than flipping spots.

Tingler routinely cites Davies’ “very low heart rate.” So in theory, when you send him to the mound you send him at his best.

The options after hemorrhaging starters, though, must have felt maddening. No doubt Paddack’s painful beginning clouded an evaluation of the limited choices — or, according to Internet reaction, set reasonable assessments ablaze.

Paddack had to pitch better. Period.

“I think,” Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong said of missing Lamet and Clevinger, “it just kind of eased our anxiety a little bit.”

The Cardinals’ first-inning lumber display would melt plenty of dugouts down to the studs. The start became a 16-pitch slasher flick for the Padres, in their first playoff game since 2006.

Five consecutive hits, three for extra bases — including the sky-high, two-run homer by Paul Goldschmidt on the sixth pitch of the game — parked the Padres on their heels before the final notes of the national anthem fully drifted into the coastal sunshine.

Dylan Carlson doubled. Yadier Molina singled in a run, DeJong doubled and Matt Carpenter plated the fourth of the inning on a sacrifice fly that could have been worse if not for a sliding catch by Jurickson Profar.

One out into the third inning, three Cardinals were halfway to hitting for the cycle.

“A nightmarish beginning, no question,” Padres radio voice Ted Leitner said. “You can’t put a dress on that.”

The Padres, though, led the big leagues with 22 comeback wins this season. They became Slam Diego after a historic run of grand slams in four consecutive games and a fifth two games later. Surely, they could stay in the game no matter what the early returns showed.

Someone forgot to share the Padres meeting notes with the lunch pail Cardinals.

You hardly could blame the postseason visitors for filing a claim with the National Labor Relations Board after playing 53 games in 44 days while rattling off a numbing 11 doubleheaders.

The sweaty chaos very well could have steeled the birds, who flashed more resilience than anyone not named the Marlins this season. The Cardinals resumed play after a 14-game string of postponements because of COVID-19 positives by piling in 45 rental cars and driving to Chicago to start all over again.

Adam Wainwright, the Cardinals’ Game 2 starter, sounded like Nostradamus during a Zoom call before the series lid-lifter.

“I’m looking forward to seeing what our hitters are going to do when they are not so exhausted,” Wainwright said. “At the end of that season guys were just completely worn down. It doesn’t seem like much playing this game of baseball, but it takes its toll on you playing at a high level mentally and physically for what we did 44 days and I think we maybe had one or two off days.

“That is hard on our position players. … These guys are competitors and they are very, very good athletes. I look forward to seeing what they’re going to do.”

So, the Padres rolled the dice. There were less of those to roll than most probably think.

Painful? Yes. Easy? Hardly.

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