SAN DIEGO — I’ll be rooting for the Padres and the Dodgers to advance to the second round of the four-tier World Series tournament next month.
At last, it would be win or go home between the Pads and Dodgers. Their showdowns of September 1996 and this week afforded both teams a safety net.
Whetting the appetite, the games this summer between the Southern California teams have charged up a 60-game MLB season much challenged by the coronavirus pandemic. Even with no fans at Petco Park and Dodger Stadium, the Padres and Dodgers created plenty of atmosphere.
Look at the star power. Mookie Betts. Fernando Tatis. Clayton Kershaw. Manny Machado. Cody Bellinger.
“I’m scared of batting against Dinelson Lamet, and I’m sitting at home,” a veteran scout said. New Padres ace Mike “Sunshine” Clevinger, when he first met San Diego media in a Zoom chat, dressed like he belongs on the Sgt. Pepper cover. His pitches can be as electric as Jimi Hendrix’s performance at Woodstock. And Padres outfielder Wil Myers is playing perhaps the best baseball of his life.
Did you see young Dodgers pitcher Dustin May, the top performer in L.A.’s victory Wednesday? He has a Kevin Brown turbo-sinker. Brown, recall, helped get Petco Park built. The hired gun who led the Padres to the 1998 World Series, Brown had the best stuff of any Padres pitcher.
It was a weird one. Ginning up a Cactus League vibe, the Padres used nine pitchers. Garrett Richards, a starter all season, worked in relief. Joey Lucchesi, a starter for his whole career, came out of the bullpen, too — into a tight spot. Neither move worked out for the Padres, who fell behind six runs and lost 7-5, all but locking up L.A.’s eighth West title in eight years.
I thought it might be the Padres’ day when Jason Castro laced a double to tie the game in the second inning.
When Castro gets a hit, it’s a double, but this was still a stunner. Castro seldom bats against lefties because he’s enfeebled against them — .195 for his career and 2-for-12 (.167) this season. Dodgers lefty reliever Adam Kolarek is death on lefties. They’d gone 1 for 29 against him. So what happened? Castro raked the first pitch past first baseman Bellinger, who seemed too stunned to move.
If their run-prevention units match Wednesday’s performance, the Pads stand to get booted in the postseason’s first round.
Yet once again, Machado and Myers showed up.
Machado is playing some of the best third-base defense in team history. As good as Ken Caminiti was, Machado is smoother and a bit more accurate. He has an uncanny “clock,” allowing him to time his fielding and throwing a la Graig Nettles with the 1984 World Series team. Nettles could play very deep, expanding his range, because of his many skills.
Also Wednesday, Machado turned around May’s explosive pitches. He belted a home run off the fellow righty and scalded a groundout and a single. Velocity of the latter pitch: 99.9 mph. Exit velocity off Machado’s bat: 114.
Somehow, Myers yanked an inside fastball clocked at 99 mph from Brusdar Graterol past the third baseman. Earning the extra base, he busted out of the batter’s box. Later Myers made a difficult running catch in right field.
Clevinger and Paddack
When they met Wednesday, the Dodgers and Padres were all but locked into the postseason as the Nos. 1 and 4 seeds, and neither of those seeds provided much of an edge over the other. Only 2 ½ games separated the West rivals, but neither team’s manager pulled out all the stops to win the game.
Rather than allowing L.A. to have a look this week at Clevinger — a former American League ace acquired in a recent trade who never has faced the Dodgers — manager Jayce Tingler started him Sunday against the Giants.
Nor did Tingler allow the Dodgers a crack at Chris Paddack, instead penciling him for Friday against the Mariners.
Despite Paddack’s bumpy ride the past few weeks and struggles against the Dodgers, who’ve slugged .624 off him and dealt him a 6.94 ERA in five games, scouts with other teams said a healthy, grooved Paddack would slot third in the Pads’ playoff rotation (although Zach Davies currently is penciled in there).
In 1996, the NL West title was on the line when the Padres and Dodgers met in the season’s final game, but because of the wild card MLB adopted in 1994, both teams were assured a playoff spot. Reducing the stakes further, the format didn’t confer a playoff advantage on the West winner.
“Maybe the winner can get a bowl of fruit or something,” Dodgers catcher Mike Piazza said.
Said Tony Gwynn: “We’ll bring out the champagne if we win the division. If we don’t win it, we won’t have any. That’s the way it should be, I think.”
Dodgers manager Bill Russell wanted ace Ramon Martinez to start the playoff opener. So he used him in the “opener” role that is now fashionable. Martinez exited after one scoreless inning.
Ensuring Padres ace Joey Hamilton could start the playoff opener, Bruce Bochy had Bob Tewksbury make the start.
The Padres won 2-0, breaking through on Chris Gwynn’s double off Chan Ho Park in the 11th inning.
Celebrating, the Padres didn’t hold back. Tony Gwynn, hugging, screaming, laughing and spraying champagne in the cramped locker room at Dodger Stadium, never appeared happier at a ballpark. His brother had delivered the big hit — fewer than 24 hours after big brother had done the same by driving lefty Mark Guthrie’s pitch through the “5.5” hole with the bases loaded and two outs late in a tie game. Gwynn was headed to his second postseason. The first trip had come in 1984, when the only way to reach the playoffs was to win the division.
The Padres’ Wally Joyner was emphatic: “This wasn’t a meaningless game to us. I don’t care what anybody says.”
“They just flat-out beat us,” said Dodgers first-baseman Eric Karros, who had celebrated L.A.’s division-clincher the year before in San Diego. “We have no excuses. I’m just very frustrated right now. For everybody on the field, and everybody in the stands, we wanted to win this darn thing. And we didn’t get it done.
“Believe me, this is the worst I’ve felt after a game all year.”
The Padres and Dodgers never have met in the playoffs, which were limited to the division winner in all but one of the Padres seasons before 1996.
Should they meet in October — at an empty ballpark in Arlington, Texas — it would pit the teams that today are first and second in the National League standings, and unsurpassed by any MLB team in run differential.
With a berth in the League Championship Series on the line, the question couldn’t be asked: Which team wants it the most?
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