Padres keys to upset Dodgers in NLDS

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

“I hope we do,” Melvin said confidently.

No, it wasn’t quite the cautious-what-you-wish ruthlessness it might sound. The Padres fought for their lives in the playoffs. A date in October with the Dodgers meant they had reached the postseason and then won a Wild Card Series along the way.

Lately, the rivalry looks as skewed as ever. The Dodgers recorded 14 of their 19 regular-season encounters with the Padres, winning a total of nine consecutive series. But the Padres, defiant as ever, insist it could be different this time.

Here are four reasons why they might be right:

1. This is the best baseball they’ve played

Handy, isn’t it? The Padres chose the Wild Card Series against the Mets to play arguably their two most complete baseball games of the season.

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

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

“It was a bunch of different guys, and in a dressing room that breeds confidence and breeds faith, and that’s what you need in a post season.”

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

2. A healthier, more stable pitching staff

The Dodgers are the favorites of the World Series for a reason. And yet, doesn’t it feel like they’re going into the playoffs with more than their fair share of question marks — especially on the pitching side of things?

They do not have a permanent establishment. Walker Buehler is out. Tony Gonsolin’s role is unclear.

The Padres, on the other hand, probably couldn’t be in a much better place in regards to their staff. (Unless they’d beaten the Mets in two and Musgrove 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 throwing well lately. In the bullpen, the roles have fallen nicely into place now that Josh Hader looks like Josh Hader again. Robert Suarez and Luis García have established themselves as reliable options with high leverage.

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

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

So the Padres are looking for a stunning NLDS attack on the Dodgers, you say? They employ someone who has experience in that area. Juan Soto did just that with the 2019 Nationals — his tying homer to Clayton Kershaw in Game 5 served as one of the lasting images of that series.

The Padres dealt with Soto in early August, and his first full series with the team was a win in LA. After that, he was defiant, stunned when a reporter asked about the rift between the two clubs.

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

Soto’s Padres’ tenure is off to a slow start – at least by his lofty standards. But he may be on the cusp of an October outbreak. He went 4-for-12 (.333) in the Wild Card Series with a grueling two-run single off dominant Mets closer Edwin Díaz. Then Soto turned his attention to the Dodgers.

“We have a pretty good shot,” said Soto. “We’ve been dealing with them all year, so we know what they’re up to. We just have to get out there and play good baseball like we did on this series.”

4. The Padres can come out swinging

“We’ve actually been playing playoff games for the entire past month,” Padres general manager AJ Preller said amid the chaos of Sunday’s celebrations. “We know the Dodgers well. They are a phenomenal team. But there are only four teams left in the National League. We are one of them. We will be ready to go.”

There is no doubt about that. The Padres played with a renewed sense of urgency for most of September as the Wild Card race tightened. (Really, that dates from a rare team meeting convened by Melvin in which he called his team up for its lackluster performance on September 15.)

Since then, the Padres have had something on the phone almost every night — and they’ve played like it. However, the Dodgers have not played a really meaningful game in that period. At the first litter on Tuesday evening they have been sitting for five days.

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

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