Padres key to upset Dodgers in NLDS

LOS ANGELES — After playing six series against the Dodgers in his first year as Padres manager — and losing all six of those series — Bob Melvin sat on the podium in Petco’s interview room Park last month and was asked about the prospect of facing Los Angeles for the seventh time in October.

“Hopefully we will,” Melvin said confidently.

No, it wasn’t quite the impudence to be careful what you wished for. The Padres were fighting for their lives in the playoffs. An October date with the Dodgers meant they would have made the playoffs and then won a Wild Card series on the road.

Lately, the rivalry has seemed as lopsided as it has ever been. The Dodgers have taken 14 of their 19 meetings with the Padres during the regular season, and they have won nine straight series between them overall. But the Padres, more defiant than ever, insist this time could be different.

Here are four reasons why they might be right:

1. It’s the best baseball they’ve played

Convenient, isn’t it? The Padres picked the Wild Card series against the Mets to play perhaps their two most comprehensive baseball games of the season.

They got pitching, defense and production from their entire starting lineup.

“That’s the point of it all – we need everyone,” said center fielder Trent Grisham, the star of this Wild Card series. “That’s what everyone in this locker room wanted to see. We didn’t want it to be just Manny [Machado] take over, as it has done all year. I mean – we want it. But we want it to be more than that.

“It was a different group of guys, and in a locker room that breeds confidence and belief, and that’s what you need in the playoffs.”

Of course, there’s a reason the Padres haven’t been at their best against the Dodgers: The Dodgers are good and very tough to play against. But if there was ever a time for the Padres to take their best shot, it’s now – with a suddenly deep offense, one of the best defenses in the league, and…

2. A healthier and more stable pitching stick

The Dodgers are World Series favorites for good reason. And yet, don’t they feel like they’re entering the playoffs with more than their share of question marks — especially on the pitching side?

They have no proximity. Walker Bühler is absent. Tony Gonsolin’s role is unclear.

The Padres, on the other hand, probably couldn’t be better off when it comes to their personnel. (Unless they beat the Mets in two and Musgrove is lined up for Game 1.)

Still, their rotation of Mike Clevinger-Yu Darvish-Blake Snell-Musgrove is one of the best in baseball, and they’ve all been pitching well lately. In the bullpen, the roles have fallen into place, now that Josh Hader looks like Josh Hader again. Robert Suarez and Luis García have established themselves as reliable high leverage options.

There are holes in the middle sleeves. And the Dodgers still have one of the most complete pitching staffs around. But the Padres like the way theirs stack up.

3. Soto hasn’t fully asserted himself on this rivalry…yet

So the Padres are looking to pull a great NLDS upset from the Dodgers, you say? In this case, they employ someone who has experience in this area. Juan Soto did it with the 2019 Nationals – his home run tying Clayton Kershaw in Game 5 serving as one of the enduring images of this series.

The Padres traded for Soto in early August, and his first full series with the team was a sweep in Los Angeles. He was then defiant, appalled when a reporter asked about the gap between the two clubs.

“We’re both in the big leagues,” Soto said. “We can both play.”

The Padres de Soto’s tenure is off to a slow start – at least by his high standards. But he could be on the verge of an October breakout. He went 4 for 12 (.333) in the Wild Card series with a backbreaking two-run single against Mets closest dominant Edwin Díaz. Afterwards, Soto turned his attention to the Dodgers.

“We have a very good shot,” Soto said. “We’ve played them all year, so we know what they’ve got. We just have to get out there and play some good baseball like we’ve done this series.”

4. The Padres could come out swinging

“We’ve been playing playoff games pretty much all of the last month,” Padres general manager AJ Preller said amid the chaos of Sunday’s celebrations. “We know the Dodgers well. They’re a phenomenal team. But there’s only four teams left in the National League. We’re one of them. We’ll be good to go.”

there is no doubt. The Padres played most of September with a renewed sense of urgency as the race for the Wild Cards tightened. (Really, it goes back to a rare team meeting Melvin called in which he called out his team for their lackluster performance on Sept. 15.)

Since then, the Padres have had something at stake virtually every night — and they’ve played like that. The Dodgers, meanwhile, haven’t played a truly meaningful game in that span. On the first pitch Tuesday night, they’ll be seated for five days.

If the Padres, in a best-of-five series, can throw the first punch or two, that would put the Dodgers somewhere they haven’t been very often in this rivalry — on their heels.

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