Tuesday, December 6, 2022

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The Padres’ belief comes true as they equalize against the Dodgers

LOS ANGELES — The San Diego Padres navigated most of this regular season as a mystery. The talent on their list often didn’t match the quality of their game. Encouraging sections usually followed bad sections. High expectations were usually quickly tempered. Along the way, however, they seemed to find strength in a unique thought: that they hadn’t yet reached their ceiling and their best baseball was yet to come.

It has apparently shown itself in the most important place.

The Padres, No. 5 in the National League, started these playoffs by winning three of five away games against two teams that combined for a combined 212 wins in the regular season. They won two out of three games against the New York Mets at Citi Field over the weekend, stunning them in the wild card round. Now they have split the first two games of their divisional series against a Los Angeles Dodgers team they defeated over the past six months. The Padres’ most recent win, scored 5-3 at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday night, showed them putting on excellent defense, stringing together timely hits and finishing baseball’s best offense in the late innings.

Now, the Padres are returning home to Petco Park for their first postseason home games in San Diego — with fans in attendance — since 2006.

Suddenly, a path to victory over the mighty Dodgers seems very clear.

“Ultimately, I think we all believe in each other,” said Padre’s third baseman Manny Machado. “We believed in each other all year. We did it all year too. It just clicks for us as a group now. It’s just a matter of will. We want to come to the World Series, we want to bring a championship to San Diego. Ultimately, the group just gets together and just grinds it out.

The Padres dropped Game 1 on Tuesday, but they struggled. They fell back five runs early on, reduced their gap to two in the middle and kept it close until late. That, Wil Myers believes, was “carried over” in Game 2.

It started in the very first inning when Machado lined a hanging slider from Clayton Kershaw for a home run over the left field fence. The Dodgers responded with solo homers from Freddie Freeman and Max Muncy, and the Padres came back with three straight hits that generated two extra runs on top of the third. The Dodgers tied it up with another bottom-half solo homer — this one from Trea Turner — and the Padres retook the lead on an RBI single from Jurickson Profar in the sixth. The Dodgers threatened after that, but Jake Cronenworth made for a big insurance run by homering Blake Treinen in the eighth.

As Mookie Betts led the fifth with a walk, Padres catcher Austin Nola gunned him down with a perfect throw in an attempted steal. When Turner followed down the left with a 103-mile ball, Machado correlated it with a skillful play. And as the Dodgers lined up first two runners at the end of the sixth against a tiring Yu Darvish, Robert Suarez came out of the bullpen and shut them out, knocking out Justin Turner and getting Gavin Lux to jump into an inning-ending double play.

“We’ve had ups and downs in the season,” Soto said, “but we all know we have a great team and we can do a lot of damage.”

Before Suarez’s arrival, Soto delivered one of the key plays of the night. With an on and no out in the sixth, Muncy hit a deep drive to the right that bounced off the fence. Soto briefly shot the air with his glove and pretended to be set for a routine catch, creating just enough uncertainty for Muncy and lead runner Will Smith to hang on, stop a run on goal and save that , which became a crucial doubles game.

“The Deke got him,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said of Muncy. “I think at that point he sold it well enough that Max slowed down and ended up on first base.”

The Dodgers put themselves in solid defense, especially in the sixth when Brusdar Graterol made a skillful barehanded play at home and Cody Bellinger twisted twice to put a deep ball down the middle. But Turner’s error before that inning added to a run, and the Padres ultimately made the Dodgers pay for it. That’s what good teams do.

“During the season we played a lot of such close games,” Profar said, “and it seemed like we always lost those games.”

But the Padres act like a different team now and it shows against the opponent who caused them the most problems. The Dodgers, the division rivals they constantly haunt, won their last nine regular season games against the Padres in 2021 and 14 of 19 in 2022, and more than doubled that many runs against them that year. Their pairing in that round represented the largest margin in running difference between two teams in postseason history.

But all that matters is who can win two of the next three and the Padres could suddenly have the advantage. The next two games will take place in their place. Games 3 and 4 each start with Blake Snell, who has done well against the Dodgers in the past, and Joe Musgrove, who came off a dominant game against the Mets on Sunday. The Dodgers, meanwhile, have reached the uncertain portion of their rotation, with Tony Gonsolin, who hasn’t played more than two innings since Aug. 23, getting the ball in Game 3. Its launch will evolve into a bullpen game.

“Throughout the season, they beat us,” Profar said of the Dodgers’ 111-win finish, which finished 22 games ahead of the Padres in the NL West. “They beat us. But we played pretty good games during the season. We lost them and we know we can beat them if we play our good baseball.”

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