SAN DIEGO — The Padres are one win away from slaying that dragon on the freeway — and they might not even have to go up Interstate 5 to do it.
Petco Park’s first playoff game in front of fans in 16 years brought the goods. San Diego filled the place long before the first pitch, waving golden towels and a cacophony of noise from the start.
The Padres responded with a 2-1 edge-of-your-seat victory in Friday’s Game 3 against the Dodgers. They now lead the National League Division Series by that same total and can earn their first trip to the NL Championship Series since 1998 with a Game 4 win on Saturday night.
“We arrive tomorrow,” said Juan Soto. “We are not going to take it easy because we are in the lead. We need to. A lot of people in that clubhouse are hungry to go out there and beat those guys.
“A win,” Padres third baseman Manny Machado said. “But it’s a good ball club there. They will bring everything tomorrow. We just have to go out there and mind our business. We have Joe the big game on the mound.
If Friday night was any indication, they’ll also have a massive home-court advantage. The 45,137 in attendance marked the largest crowd at Petco Park for a postseason game.
The Padres won two playoff games in the East Village midway through the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. But they had never won a playoff game in front of Petco Park fans. Those fans were suitably enraged on Friday.
“It was probably the best crowd I’ve pitched in front of,” said Blake Snell, starting in Game 3. “The energy was electric the whole time.”
Snell was making his first playoff start against the Dodgers since his infamous quick hook in Game 6 of the 2020 World Series. He was mostly snappy, allowing just one run in 5 1/3 innings. Snell struck out six and pushed his way through a lot of traffic.
When Max Muncy doubled with one out in the sixth, Snell’s night was over and he walked out to a standing ovation. Unlike that start in Game 6 of the World Series, his bullpen finished the job. San Diego’s relief corps continued its dominant run with 3 2/3 scoreless frames and didn’t allow a Dodgers run in 12 2/3 innings this series.
“All of these guys have been amazing,” Soto said. “I think it’s one of the biggest paddocks I’ve ever seen. … They show it.
With a bullpen like this, the Padres feel awfully confident taking an early lead. On Friday night, they immediately jumped on it. Jake Cronenworth’s RBI single gave San Diego a 1-0 advantage in the first inning. Trent Grisham’s solo shot — his third leading homer in the playoffs — doubled that lead in fourth. It turned out to be decisive.
Grisham, who finished the regular season with the lowest batting average of any qualifier, is in the midst of one of the best playoff series in Padres history. His three homers are already one shy of Jim Leyritz’s franchise playoff record.
“I really feel like myself again,” Grisham said.
Half an inning later, the Dodgers scored their only run on Mookie Betts’ sacrifice fly. They threatened after that but failed to score, ending the night 0-9 with men in scoring position. With each act of escape, Petco Park grew a little more frantic.
And when Josh Hader threw a 99mph fastball past Trayce Thompson to end it, the place erupted.
“That crowd was amazing,” Machado said. “It was fun – many years of waiting.”
Surprisingly, the Padres find themselves in control of the NLDS. In best-of-five playoff history, teams holding a 2-1 lead have won the series 67 of 93 times (72%). In the Division Series with the current 2-2-1 format, teams 2-1 and playing Game 4 in their home stadiums advanced 21 of 26 times (81%). In 15 of those cases, the series ended in Game 4.
If the Padres can finish it, they’ll have pulled off one of the sport’s truly monumental upsets. The Dodgers have won 22 more games than the Padres during the regular season. No team has won a playoff series against a team so many games above them in the standings since the 1906 White Sox.
“It’s been a really good regular season, but like we’ve said before, none of it matters,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “We’re in a five-game series against a very good ball club that we know well, and the team that plays baseball the best is going to win the series.
“So far they have played better than us.”
It’s a stark reversal of the regular season — and, really, of the past decade. The Dodgers have won the previous six series this year. They finished ahead of San Diego in the standings in every season since 2010. At the trade deadline, the Padres revised their roster with precisely that series in mind; they had to overtake their rivals at some point.
That’s when chairman Peter Seidler proclaimed the Dodgers to be “the dragon on the freeway that we’re trying to kill.”
And here they sit, one victory away from killing him.