Image credit: Jake Cronenworth (Denis Poroy/Getty Images)
SAN DIEGO — As the rain steadily fell on downtown San Diego on a crisp Saturday night, more than a decade of pain in the country’s eighth-largest city washed away.
The Padres spent the past 11 years—heck, most of their existence—chasing the Dodgers. Their “rivalry” was one that existed only by virtue of their geographic proximity. On the field, the matchup was more of an annual beatdown, with the Dodgers reigning supreme again and again.
Every move the Padres made under the stewardship of general manager A.J. Preller—building the No. 1 farm system in baseball, handing out four franchise record-setting contracts in six years, acquiring star after star in trades—was made with one goal in mind: amass enough talent to compete with the Dodgers, and finally overtake them.
It never worked. The Dodgers ran up a 144-73 record against the Padres dating back to 2011. They beat them in 14 of 19 matchups this season, outscoring them 107-49 and posting rout after rout. It seemed no matter what the Padres did, no matter how much talent they amassed, they appeared doomed to perennially play second fiddle to their neighbors to the north.
That all came to an end Saturday night. With a stunning, cathartic rally, the Padres finally overcame their greatest tormenters.
Jake Cronenworth drilled a tie-breaking two-out, two-run single to cap a five-run rally in the bottom of the seventh inning, and the Padres came back to stun the Dodgers 5-3 and eliminate them from the postseason in Game 4 of the National League Division Series.
The Padres will host the Phillies in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series on Tuesday. The 111-win Dodgers are going home.
“It means the world, man,” said Padres outfielder Trent Grisham, who continued his torrid postseason with a single and a run scored during the seventh inning rally. “I mean what? We had four out of 19 wins against them? Everybody was talking about them, saying most wins in franchise history, most this, most that. And then when it mattered, we came through.”
The Dodgers won the first game of the NLDS and no more. The Padres overcame an early deficit to beat them in Game 2. Backed by a raucous home crowd witnessing its first home Padres playoff game since 2006, they never trailed in a Game 3 victory.
Game 4 represented the peak of it all. Hometown product Joe Musgrove battled through a workmanlike six innings, but the Padres gave him no run support and the Dodgers held a 2-0 lead on a two-run double by Freddie Freeman in the third. They added another on a Will Smith sacrifice fly in the top of the seventh, the first run they’d scored all series against a lockdown Padres bullpen.
With the Petco Park crowd deflated and the Dodgers in the lead the entire way, the series appeared destined to return to Dodger Stadium for Game 5.
Instead, the Padres rose up.
The bottom of the Padres order led the charge, as it has all postseason. Jurickson Profar worked a leadoff walk to open the seventh. Grisham continued his scorching postseason with a single that fell just out of the reach of a diving Trayce Thompson in center to put runners on the corners. Austin Nola followed with a perfectly-placed chopper that deflected off the glove of Freddie Freeman to score Profar and give the Padres their first run of the game.
“I wasn’t going to be denied,” Nola said. “I was gonna do everything I can to get the next guy up. I was gonna win every pitch. And that’s how we play. That’s how we are. That’s our identity.
“We win every pitch. In every inning we’re gonna put pressure on them. That mounts up at the end. If every single person does that it mounts to the end, I promise.”
With the offense awakening, what had been a tense, nervous crowd of 45,139 at Petco Park came alive.
It would only get livelier. Ha-Seong Kim bounced a chopper down the left-field line for a double to drive home Grisham and cut the deficit to one. One batter later, Juan Soto laced a single into right to score Nola with the tying run.
In a span of five batters, the Padres had erased a 3-0 deficit and pulled into a tie.
“There are some things that we can control and we can control our enthusiasm, our energy and how we go about our business,” Nola said. “And we continued to do that even when the score was 3-0, when it was 2-0, even when it felt like they were gonna pull away. That’s winning baseball when you do it like that.”
For a brief moment, it appeared the Padres rally might stall at a tie. Manny Machado struck out against Yency Almonte and Brandon Drury popped up, putting the Padres at risk of stranding the go-ahead run at third base.
Then, a fortuitous series of events happened. After Almonte nearly hit Jake Cronenworth with the first pitch, manager Dave Roberts emerged from the dugout and removed Almonte from the game mid at-bat. Lefthander Alex Vesia trotted in and took over already behind in the count, 1-0.
After the game, Roberts said Almonte was supposed to throw over to first base to give Vesia more time to warm up, but the sign got “lost in translation” and Almonte instead delivered a pitch.
“We missed a throw-over to buy a little bit of time,” Roberts said. “So Alex inherited a 1-0 count … He was ready. I just wanted to buy a little bit more time.”
Vesia quickly got ahead anyway, throwing a 94 mph fastball past Cronenworth for a called strike and a 96 mph fastball above the zone that Cronenworth fouled away.
On the fourth pitch of the at-bat, with Vesia focused on Cronenworth, he didn’t even check Soto at first base. Soto, seeing the opportunity, easily stole second, side-skipping the final few steps to the bag after Vesia’s fastball sailed high and wide of the strike zone. The free stolen base to move into scoring position would prove crucial.
On the very next pitch, Vesia threw a slider just off the outer edge of the plate. Cronenworth stayed back, extended his hands and poked it up the middle into center field for a two-out, two-strike, two-run single, giving the Padres the lead and sending Petco Park into a state of bedlam.
“Just be sure to get the barrel on the ball, put in the middle of the field,” Cronenworth said of his approach. “You just got to put a good swing on it and hope for the best.”
With Soto’s opportunistic steal, it allowed him to score on the base hit and give the Padres a two-run lead instead of just a one-run lead. With Robert Suarez and Josh Hader waiting at the back of the Padres bullpen, it made a Dodgers comeback that much more unlikely.
“We never say die,” Padres manager Bob Melvin said. “We weren’t going to be denied today. It just felt that way, even when we got down, I think we felt like we were going to come back. The fans were as inspirational as I’ve ever seen in my life. Standing up cheering for us. Once we got the lead it was like an avalanche. I don’t think we’re going to be denied.”
As the inning concluded, the skies opened up and a downpour began. The rocking, sold-out crowd embraced it, dancing in the rain as Blink-182’s “All the Small Things” blared from the PA system. The party was on in San Diego, even with two innings still to go.
“I wish I could explain it to you,” Grisham said. “I wish I could explain to everybody. I wish that everybody could experience it because it was like nothing I’ve ever seen. You watch 30 players, 100 staff, everybody come together and then the city of San Diego behind us. I mean, it was surreal. And I don’t know if I’ll ever experience anything like it again.”
Suarez, with the rain pouring, promptly retired the side in the eighth. After the Padres went down in order in the ninth, Hader took the mound with the opportunity to close it out.
One of the Padres’ many headline trade acquisitions, Hader at first appeared to be the latest veteran who would disappoint after arriving in San Diego. He allowed 12 hits and 12 earned runs in his first 4.2 innings as a Padre, risking joining Matt Kemp, James Shields and Eric Hosmer in the long list of big-name veterans brought in by Preller who faltered.
Instead, he rediscovered his dominant form down the stretch and into the postseason. After recording a four-out save at Dodger Stadium in Game 2—his first four-out save in two years—he came in and struck out the side to end Game 4.
When Freeman swung over a Hader slider for the final strike of the game, Petco Park reached an ear-ringing pitch.
The Padres, finally, had beaten the Dodgers.
“They have taken it to us all year,” Nola said. “That is the one of the best lineups you’re gonna see in baseball. One of the best pitching staffs, bullpen, all around. Ton of respect for what they’ve done. It’s definitely sweet beating them because I mean they’ve taken it to us all year. I mean, we needed to put together our best performances every single night and we did it.”
Now, the Padres are headed to their first NLCS since 1998. Through all their trials and travails—their five straight years picking in the top 10 of the draft, their multiple botched attempts at competing, their trades of 66 young players and prospects in a span of less than three years—they’re finally where they hoped to be: on top of the Dodgers, and playing deep into the postseason.
“There’s no better feeling than this man,” Machado said.
“We’re on our way to something special here, something that San Diego’s never seen.”