Padres' win over the Dodgers shows how San Diego can seize the NL West
By Pedro Moura
FOX Sports MLB Writer
In consecutive weekend series, the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres faced off in seven exciting games that illustrated just how tight their NL West Division race could be — and, ultimately, how the Dodgers' eight-year reign could end.
Forged in the Dodgers’ image, the Padres have demonstrated they possess the top-end talent and back-end depth to challenge the team that ousted them last year. From there, all it should take to surpass L.A. is good fortune and, probably, some calculated risks.
After a six-run comeback Sunday at Dodger Stadium, the Padres emerged as winners of four of the first seven games in this sport’s most rousing rivalry. The cumulative score? 32-30. The teams were separated by two or fewer runs in all but seven of the series’ 68 innings.
The Dodgers left feeling like they had not played their best. The Padres believed they had delivered a statement.
"The whole baseball world was watching these games, locked in to our series, and I think they know that we can compete with these guys," Eric Hosmer said. "That’s basically the statement we made: that we’re going to come with everything we’ve got and we’re going to fight these guys to the end. We respect what they’ve done, we respect who they are, but we’re certainly not going to back down from them."
The two teams, it warrants mention, are approaching April differently. After his team’s 11-inning win Sunday, Padres manager Jayce Tingler revealed to reporters that he had been trying to avoid using taxed relievers Emilio Pagán and Tim Hill. Tingler took a risk. Both pitched and pitched well.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts had planned to stay away from three of his own relievers: Kenley Jansen, Blake Treinen and Scott Alexander. Roberts did as planned. The man who bore the loss for the Dodgers, Garrett Cleavinger, was pitching in his second major-league game.
The Dodgers, still on a 110-win pace, are not close to full strength. Among the key players they have been missing: Tony Gonsolin, the blooming right-hander who started Game 6 of the World Series; Joe Kelly, the erratic but talented reliever who shut the door in these teams’ lone tight NLDS game last year; Cody Bellinger, the expected cleanup hitter; Gavin Lux, the expected second baseman; Zach McKinstry, Lux’s would-be replacement.
Then, on Friday, they lost high-leverage reliever Corey Knebel for at least a couple of months. On Sunday, they might have lost David Price to a hamstring strain. His injury at least hindered Roberts’ goal of deploying him as a three-inning closer, forcing the likes of Cleavinger into the game.
The Padres are short-handed, too, if a bit less so. Fernando Tatis Jr. is learning how to hit homers despite a partially dislocated shoulder — and doing quite well at it.
Dinelson Lamet spent only one day off the injured list before returning to it alongside reliever Keone Kela. Planned primary catcher Austin Nola is only now on the verge of making his 2021 debut. Outfielders Wil Myers and Tommy Pham nursed injuries Sunday. Left-hander Adrian Morejonunderwent Tommy John surgery last week.
The Dodgers pride themselves on being deeper than their peers, but this is not the ideal year, and especially not the ideal month, for any team to rely on minor-league depth. Eighteen months have passed since the most recent minor-league game.
Three of the Dodgers’ current hitters — Sheldon Neuse, DJ Peters and Luke Raley — didn’t bat in a game between September 2019 and this month. The Dodgers were confident McKinstry could step into the role vacated by departed super-sub Kiké Hernández. Indications are that they were correct, but it’s not nearly as clear that their next line of depth can pass a similar test.
As of halfway through this latest series, relying on those call-ups, the Dodgers had 23 hits in their six most recent games. It had been 112 years since the franchise registered fewer hits in a span of that length, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That could not last, and it did not. They registered 12 hits the next night and 10 on Sunday, though few came with runners in scoring position.
As he often does, Roberts framed the Dodgers’ defeats as the products of their own insufficient performance, rather than any particular Padres’ excellence. His message to his players is always that they control their fate, and the team always retains the talent to render him correct.
But the margin between these two teams has shrunk enough that health and chance might factor into the race this year.
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The 2021 Padres do wield one real advantage over the Dodgers: their baserunning, arguably baseball’s best, inarguably baseball’s most aggressive. Tatis’ skill and risk-taking on the basepaths made the difference Sunday, enabling Hosmer’s go-ahead sacrifice fly.
Those are the plays they will need to pull off to complete the divisional triumph.
And they will need to pull them off against the rest of the league as well, while the Dodgers get healthy and greet lesser teams. Because after all of these spring games, these teams will not meet again for eight weeks, until the second day of summer. It will then be another two months before they match up in late August, in front of larger and louder crowds, beginning a run of three series down the stretch.
More than a quarter of the Padres’ final 35 games will be against the Dodgers. If they are still in the race then, these series showed they could win it outright. They just have to stay in the race.
Pedro Moura is the national baseball writer for FOX Sports. He most recently covered the Dodgers for three seasons for The Athletic. Previously, he spent five years covering the Angels and Dodgers for the Orange County Register and Los Angeles Times. More previously, he covered his alma mater, USC, for ESPNLosAngeles.com. The son of Brazilian immigrants, he grew up in the Southern California suburbs. Follow him on twitter at @pedromoura.