July 8, 2021: Rookie reliever Daniel Camarena’s grand slam powers Padres’ comeback
With two aces taking the mound, it was a safe prediction that a pitcher would seize the spotlight. But despite the San Diego Padres’ Yu Darvish lasting only three innings and the Washington Nationals’ Max Scherzer getting the hook before the end of the fourth, that prediction still came true, thanks to a rookie reliever in a mop-up role.
With the 2021 All-Star break just four games away, San Diego had lost a little momentum but was still one of the hottest teams of the season’s first half. The Padres held the fourth-best record in the National League.1 The Nationals had come into San Diego fresh off a four-game sweep at the hands of the Los Angeles Dodgers but bounced back with two wins in their first three games against the Padres, scoring 26 runs on 37 hits, 15 of those for extra bases.
The Nationals had struck early in those wins, scoring 14 combined runs in the first three innings, and they continued that trend this night. After a lineout by Alcides Escobar,2 Trea Turner blasted Darvish’s fifth pitch of the game into the left-field bleachers.3
Juan Soto kept things going against a shifted defense, knocking an opposite-field grounder just out of reach of third baseman Manny Machado. After Josh Bell flied out, Starlin Castro belted a double down the left-field line, but Tommy Pham got to it quickly enough that Soto was forced to stop at third. He wouldn’t stay there long, though, as Yan Gomes drilled a line drive over the glove of a leaping Jake Cronenworth at second base, scoring both Soto and Castro.
Staked to a three-run lead, Scherzer retired the first six Padres he faced. Darvish also recorded a three-up-three-down second inning, but the Nationals scored three more runs in the third on Bell’s RBI double, Castro’s sacrifice fly, and a run-scoring single by Josh Harrison.
Up 6-0 as the home half of the third began, Scherzer continued his dominance, striking out Wil Myers on four pitches. Victor Caratini managed a groundball single down the left-field line, and with that, Darvish’s night came to an end. Padres manager Jayce Tingler sent in pinch-hitter Jorge Mateo for the pitcher, who’d thrown 64 pitches and given up six runs on eight hits in just three innings, the shortest outing of his nine-season major-league career to that point.4 Mateo struck out, as did Pham to end the inning.
Of the 29,434 fans at Petco that night, several were there to see the man who would take the mound to start the fourth: reliever Daniel Camarena. The left-hander’s fresh arm had been added to the bullpen earlier in the day because, in the first three games against Washington, nine Padres relievers had thrown a combined 275 pitches.5
It was a homecoming for Camarena, who had grown up in Bonita, minutes outside San Diego. A highly touted two-way prospect at Cathedral Catholic High, he’d garnered an invitation to the 2010 Aflac All-American Classic game played at Petco Park,6 and hit a ball to the warning track in right-center field, just shy of a home run.7 The New York Yankees selected him in the 20th round of the 2011 draft, and he spent most of the next nine years in their farm system. Camarena inked a minor-league deal with San Diego prior to the 2020 season,8 and had made his big-league debut in Cincinnati a few weeks earlier, surrendering three runs on four hits in 2⅓ innings.
Against the Nationals, he struck out the first batter he faced, though it was Scherzer, who had been 0-for-28 at that point in the season.9 Escobar followed with a single, bringing up Turner, who clobbered his second home run of the night, a 411-foot bomb to center field.
“Padres come back and win this one, I’m walking from Alpine to Petco,”10 Padres broadcaster Mark Grant announced later that inning. “I’m so hoping for a Padre comeback. I want blisters and corns and bad ankles and blown-out knees and quads. Hip replacement.”11 With the Padres down 8-0, a win would mean equaling the biggest comeback in franchise history.
Tatis led off the fourth with a blast into the second deck in left field for his league-leading 28th homer, getting the Padres on the scoreboard.
“Max does not care about giving up solo shots,” Nationals color commentator Justin Maxwell insisted.12
Scherzer whiffed Cronenworth on four pitches, but plunked Machado on the forearm, surrendered a single to Grisham, and hit Eric Hosmer in the back foot with an errant slider. With the bases loaded, Myers fell behind in the count 0-and-2 but battled back to draw a run-scoring walk for San Diego’s second run.
Caratini then struck out swinging, bringing up the pitcher’s spot.
Given how taxed his bullpen was, Tingler opted not to pinch hit for Camarena. “We were down six at the time with two outs,” Tingler later recounted. “I wanted to keep the bullpen intact somewhat for Friday, Saturday, and possibly Sunday.”13
Camarena stepped to the plate wearing borrowed batting gloves and holding another player’s bat.14
“I guarantee you [Scherzer]’ll bounce back in the fifth inning, and have a much quieter half-inning,” Maxwell assured Nationals viewers as Camarena fouled a pitch into the stands.
“Just don’t strike out. Put the ball in play,” Camarena thought to himself. “Don’t strike out.”15
Scherzer wound up for his 41st pitch of the inning. As he fired a 96-mph fastball over the plate, Nationals play-by-play announcer Bob Carpenter declared, “Time to blow him away.”
Camarena swung at the pitch, which came in around shin-level, and golfed it into the right-field bleachers, several rows back from where the ball he’d hit in the Aflac game had fallen short. His grand slam narrowed Washington’s lead to 8-6.
On separate broadcasts, Carpenter and Padres play-by-play announcer Don Orsillo both shouted, “Are you kidding me?!”16
Rounding first, Camarena wasn’t sure where the ball was. “I blacked out,” he admitted. “I hit first base and all of a sudden I noticed the lights were flashing in the stadium, and that’s when it hit: ‘Oh, my god. I hit a home run.’”17 Camarena was only the second San Diego pitcher to hit a grand slam.18 It was the first time a reliever on any team had hit a grand slam since 1985,19 and the first time any pitcher had homered off Scherzer in his career. Camarena was just the second pitcher in history to hit a grand slam for the first hit of his career,20 and the first Padre to do it.21
The celebrations died down after Camarena touched home and returned to the dugout, but the Nationals still needed one out to finish the inning, and Pham wasn’t going to make that easy. The ninth man to come to the plate in the inning smoked a double down the first-base line and into the corner.
Washington manager Dave Martinez finally put an end to Scherzer’s misery,22 summoning Kyle Finnegan to face Tatis. The shortstop looped a slider into shallow right. Bell ran out from first to get the ball, Soto ran in from right, and both pulled up at the last second, letting it fall between them for a single. Pham scored from second, narrowing the Nationals’ lead to one run, 8-7.23
Camarena retired the side in order in the fifth, and his replacement, former National Craig Stammen, pitched around an error for a scoreless sixth. The Padres drew even in the bottom of the sixth, as Myers reached second on a rule-book double that bounced over the fence in left-center field, then scored two batters later on Pham’s second double of the game.
The score remained knotted at 8-8 until the bottom of the ninth. Pham continued his hot streak, leading off with a grounder through the hole between first and second. Two groundouts later, he was on third.
Washington gave Machado a free pass to first, preferring to face Grisham. The center fielder came through in the clutch, lining Sam Clay’s seventh pitch of the at-bat into right for a walk-off single.
While the headlines would focus on San Diego’s offensive counterattack, the bullpen deserved some credit as well. Despite Tingler’s stated goal of limiting his relievers’ usage, winning pitcher Mark Melancon, another former National, was the Padres’ sixth pitcher of the night. The bullpen held the Nationals scoreless over the final 5⅔ innings and surrendered only one hit in the four innings after Camarena departed.
Despite the playoff-like intensity of the encounter, neither team made the postseason. Injuries, most notably to Tatis, derailed the Padres, who finished third in the NL West behind the San Francisco Giants and Dodgers, and 11 games back of the St. Louis Cardinals for the second wild-card spot. Within weeks of this game, Washington scuttled its roster with six deadline deals of veterans for younger players, including a trade that sent Scherzer and Turner to the Dodgers.
Mark Grant made the walk from his home in Alpine to Petco Park over two days in December.24 Supporters of the walk donated more than $30,000 to Rady Children’s Hospital.25
Camarena continued to bounce between El Paso and San Diego, appearing in four more big-league games. He’d finish 2021 with a record of 0-1 and a 9.64 ERA. He had only one more at-bat, in which he was hitless. After being released at the end of the season, Camarena signed a minor-league deal to remain in the San Diego system, starting 2022 with El Paso. As of May 2022, he was one of only 26 players in major-league history whose only career hit was a home run.26 His grand slam makes him the RBI leader among them.27
This article was reviewed by Bruce Slutsky and copy-edited by Len Levin.
I watched the Padres broadcast of this game live and my cheer when Camarena hit his homer disturbed my dog, who was asleep beside me on the couch. To write this, I rewatched it with the Nationals coverage. The dog was unaffected by the second watch.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author accessed Baseball-Reference.com, Stathead.com, and Retrosheet.org; read the Washington Post’s coverage; and rewatched the game on MLB.tv.
1 They were unlucky enough to play in the same division with two of the hotter teams. At 52-38, the Padres trailed the 54-32 San Francisco Giants and the 54-34 Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West.
2 Darvish prevented Escobar’s liner from being a hit only out of self-defense. The pitcher turned away and ducked, looking surprised when he stood and found the ball in the webbing of his glove.
3 It was the second time in the series that he’d homered in the first inning. The first, in the series opener, had also been a solo shot off Padres right-hander Joe Musgrove.
4 Darvish’s hip was also tightening up on him, which may have been related to a back strain earlier in the season.
5 Including 119 by Nabil Crismatt and Nick Ramirez in the previous night’s 15-5 loss. Crismatt was demoted to El Paso after the game and Ramirez went on the 10-day injured list.
6 Among the other players on the field that day were future All-Stars Javier Báez, Francisco Lindor, and 2013 Rookie of the Year José Fernández. “2010 Aflac All-American Classic – San Diego,” Perfect Game, https://www.perfectgame.org/AllAmerican/History/GameHistory-2010.aspx?y=2010, retrieved May 7, 2022.
7 Daniel’s brother, Louie, and mother, Consuela, both referred to this missed homer when they were interviewed by Bally Sports San Diego field reporter Bob Scanlan in the bottom of the fifth inning. Scanlan then made reference to it and Daniel said it’s “true, true,” during their postgame interview; “Daniel Camarena on his grand slam,” MLB.com, https://www.mlb.com/gameday/nationals-vs-padres/2021/07/08/633343, retrieved May 8, 2022.
8 He didn’t play for any San Diego affiliates, however, because the COVID pandemic resulted in the cancellation of the minor-league season.
9 Scherzer would finish 2021 0-for-59 with 28 strikeouts and no walks.
10 Alpine is approximately 30 miles east-northeast of San Diego. Grant’s announcement was likely an homage to former Pittsburgh Pirates broadcaster Jim Rooker’s 1989 declaration that he would walk home from Philadelphia if the Pirates lost their game to the Phillies after a 10-run first inning. The Phillies went on to win 15-11, and Rooker lived up to his word after the season, walking 327 miles to raise $81,000 for children’s hospitals in both cities. Grant declared his proposed walk would be to raise funds for Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego.
11 Mark Grant and Don Orsillo, Washington Nationals at San Diego Padres live broadcast, Bally Sports San Diego, July 8, 2021; San Diego Padres, “Padres Broadcasters Have to Walk to Petco Park After Biggest Comeback in Team History!” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9EWWdYftnog, retrieved May 7, 2022.
12 Bob Carpenter and Justin Maxwell, Washington Nationals at San Diego Padres live broadcast, MASN2, July 8, 2021.
13 Jeff Sanders, “Daniel Camarena’s Grand Moment Keys Padres’ Comeback,” San Diego Union-Tribune, July 8, 2021.
14 When Camarena was called up, El Paso teammate Gosuke Katoh gave him batting gloves and a bat since Camarena didn’t have any of his own.
15 “Daniel Camarena on his grand slam,” MLB.com.
16 Camarena strikes the ball at 1:50:12 of both broadcasts available on MLB.tv. On Bally Sports San Diego, Orsillo says, “Camarena! To deep right field! Camarena plays in Slam Diego! Are you kidding me?!” On MASN 2, Carpenter says, “Are you kidding me? (pause) A fastball down and in, and a grand slam.”
17 Sanders, “Daniel Camarena’s Grand Moment”; The San Diego Union-Tribune, “Daniel Camarena on Grand Slam vs. Scherzer to Push Padres to Win, His Journey, Swagg Chain & More,” https://youtu.be/T0n6Ir9WABU, retrieved May 7, 2022.
18 The other was Mike Corkins on September 4, 1970, off Reds starter Jim Merritt in Cincinnati.
19 Pirates right-hander Don Robinson off Cubs reliever Warren Brusstar in Pittsburgh on September 12.
20 Bill Duggleby of the Phillies did it on April 21, 1898, off New York Giants pitcher Cy Seymour.
21 To come up with your own trivia about grand slams by pitchers, here’s a list of every pitcher to hit one since 1915: https://stathead.com/tiny/ILXYb. Five additional pre-1915 slams are listed in this article from the SABR archive, as well as four in which pitchers were pinch-hitting: http://research.sabr.org/journals/pitchers-hitting-grand-slams.
22 Scherzer threw a total of 91 pitches in the game, 45 of them in the fourth inning.
23 Tatis would go on to steal second, his 20th steal of the year, making him only the 15th 20-20 player before the All-Star break, and the youngest to do so.
24 Bryce Miller, “Padres Broadcaster Mark Grant Follows Through on Promise Sparked by Wild Comeback,” San Diego Union-Tribune, December 13, 2021.
25 Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego, https://bit.ly/3GxEAD8, retrieved May 7, 2022.
26 The introduction of the universal designated hitter in 2022 drastically reduced the chances that Camarena will see another at-bat, much less get another hit, in the big leagues.
27 Stathead LLC, https://stathead.com/tiny/geYcP, retrieved May 7, 2022.
San Diego Padres 9
Washington Nationals 8
San Diego, CA
Box Score + PBP:
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