If you were in doubt as to whether this was true – whether Monday’s Major League Baseball game meant more than anyone had had all year, and whether the San Diego Padres had risen enough to become a legitimate concern for the mighty Los Angeles Dodgers – consider contempt as Trent Grisham came from Clayton Kershaw in the sixth inning. He offered an admiring look, a quick turn towards his own excavation, a complacent laugh as he approached first base, an all-out dismissal of the valued pitcher that gave him a quick ball beyond the plate.
As Grisham approached home, Dodgers players poured on the edge of third base dugout, and in that moment, it looks like the Padres became so much more than charming, young, innocent underdogs.
They became threats.
“It felt a little different,” Grisham said of the Padres’ first win over Kershaw since 2013. “It felt more satisfying.”
The Dodgers, winners of seven consecutive NL West titles, and the Padres, who were removed 14 years from their most recent appearance after the season, were less than three games apart when the penultimate week of this regular season began. The series opener at Petco Park undoubtedly represented the most important Padres game of a decade, and both teams treated it with proper reverence.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts strategized his strike order in a way he had not had all season, stacking three leftists close to the top to entice the opponent to remove the menacing Dinelson Lamet as the lineup turned around for the third time. Padre’s manager Jayce Tingler adjusted his players so Kershaw would face a right-handed hitter through eight of the first nine spots. Then the game started.
“You can see that Clayton has his best speed of the season. You see Lamet sitting at 98, 99 in five innings. I thought both players, both dugouts, had energy,” Roberts said. “You can just feel the importance of the game.”
Roberts played in San Diego, trained in San Diego and still lives in San Diego. He has spent the last five years presiding over a Dodgers team that has consistently been among the sport’s greatest and managed it through two World Series and eight elimination games. Experience has made Robert cautious about magnifying moments in the regular season. But he acknowledged in advance – this season with extended playoffs and few home advantage – that this is “a great series.”
“I can not imagine what this place, in a normal year, the electricity at the stadium and just around town would be,” Tingler said three hours before Monday’s first pitch. “I wish we could experience that over the next three days.”
The Padres made their intentions clear last year when they awarded $ 300 million to Manny Machado and placed Fernando Tatis Jr. and Chris Paddack on their opening day list and avoided modern baseballs abuse of service-time manipulation. After a 70-92 finish by a team that was clearly on the rise, Padres CEO Ron Fowler declared that “heads will roll” if the Padres did not find themselves in conflict in 2020.
The statement was a bit harsh and maybe even a bit misleading. Padres was apparently at least a year away. But then they started the 2020 season with 18 wins in 30 games, and their general manager, AJ Preller, acquired at least six different players in less than 48 hours without mortgaging a loaded farm system, and it all started to feel right.
“It’s their reign,” Padre’s third baseman Manny Machado said of the Dodgers two days after the August 31 trade deadline. “And that’s their sharing honestly. But we’re coming. We’ll definitely come.”
Dodgers – as good as they are, proud as they are, executed as they are – can feel it. It seemed clear at the bottom of Monday on the seventh at the end of an otherwise magnificent Kershaw start. Padres scored five runs in a half inning that included three defensive misunderstandings and very few hard-hitting balls. Kershaw made room for Pedro Baez with two on, one out and his pitch of 99. He could only see when Padre’s DH Jorge Ona put a blooper in a double. Then Dodgers first baseman Max Muncy hesitated after setting a grounder and letting Jurickson Profar dart home. Then Dodgers infielder Chris Taylor seemed to lose Muncys throw in the light. And it all dissolved.
“We just fell apart a little bit there,” Robert said afterward.
The Dodgers and Padres have shared their eight games so far, three of which are settled with three runs or fewer. They meet twice more in the regular season and appear destined to meet again in the NL Division Series, no matter how the top of the NL West shakes out.
Kershaw rejected Grisham’s homemade party – “I do not want to worry about their team,” he said – and downplayed the potential of a budding rivalry.
“They’re a good team this year,” Kershaw said. “Eventually we may see them again in the playoffs.”