Luis Patino Steps Up As Padres Bullpen Their Way Past Cardinals

Image credit: Luis Patino (Sean Haffey/Getty)

SAN DIEGO—As the Padres revamped their roster last offseason to prepare to compete in 2020, they took extra care to pay attention to their bullpen. They had built the game’s No. 1 farm system and signed a host of decorated veterans, but knew all too well that nothing sinks a contending team’s hopes like an ineffective or unreliable relief corps. In order to truly contend in 2020, the long-circled target date for their rebuild to pay dividends, they had to make sure the bullpen would not be the soft underbelly of an otherwise imposing juggernaut.  

The Padres shelled out $34 million to bring back Drew Pomeranz, a longtime starter who was an all-star for the Padres in 2016 and had re-invented himself as a dominant reliever in Milwaukee the second half of last season. They signed former big leaguer Pierce Johnson out of Japan. They traded Manny Margot, once thought to be their center fielder of the future, to the Rays for hard-throwing righthander Emilio Pagan. On the eve of the season, they swung another trade, sending pitching prospect Ronald Bolanos and talented-but-injury prone outfielder Franchy Cordero to the Royals for lefthander Tim Hill.

The deals paled in comparison to the big splashes that brought Tommy Pham, Jake Cronenworth, Trent Grisham, Zach Davies and Jurickson Profar to San Diego. In time, they would prove to be every bit as critical.

The Padres used their bullpen to lead the way to a 4-0 victory over the Cardinals in the decisive Game 3 of the National League Wild Card Series Friday night. They used nine pitchers in nine innings, becoming the first team to use eight or more pitchers in a postseason shutout.

With aces Mike Clevinger and Dinelson Lamet injured and starters Chris Paddack and Zach Davies lasting less than three innings in their starts, the Padres leaned hard on their relief corps. They used 26 pitchers to cover 27 innings in the series—and emerged victorious.

“What those guys did this series and then tonight, wow,” Padres manager Jayce Tingler said. “I don’t know what to say. Some guys, they’ve been overworked. They’ve been overtaxed … Man to man everybody came up and said, ‘I’m good, give me the ball.’ ”

Johnson, Pagan and Pomeranz pitched in all three games. Hill tossed a scoreless inning in Game 3 in relief of Craig Stammen, who made his first start since 2010 and retired five of six batters to set the tone.

Austin Adams and Trevor Rosenthal, two bullpen additions made at the trade deadline, played starring roles as well. Adams entered a scoreless game in the fifth with two on and two out and struck out Paul Goldschmidt to preserve the tie. After the Padres broke out for four runs in the final four innings, Rosenthal, pitching for the third day in a row, struck out the side in the ninth to secure the Padres first playoff series victory since 1998.

The Padres had zero margin for error. After using eight pitchers in Game 1 and nine in Game 2, everything had to go perfectly. One false step, one inning gone sideways, and the Padres’ stock of capable pitchers would thin out and leave them vulnerable.

Instead, the nine relievers combined on a four-hit shutout.

“The beautiful thing was each guy came in with a very similar attitude,” catcher Austin Nola said. “You could tell in the bullpen they were preaching that certain type of attitude. They all came in with an attitude that ‘I’m going to attack and I’m going to be in the zone and I’m going to get ahead of hitters.’ That was impressive to watch. I loved watching that and being a part of that.”

While every inning was critical, the game turned on the performance of Luis Patiño. The Padres leaned on a group of proven, effective relievers to get through the first five innings. They knew they wanted to line up Pagan, Pomeranz and Rosenthal for seventh, eighth and ninth, respectively. They just needed someone to pitch the sixth.

The Padres took the lead in the bottom of the fifth on Eric Hosmer’s RBI double. Keeping the lead, and preventing the Cardinals from answering back in the top of the sixth, was critical.

Patino, the Padres No. 2 prospect, was one of only three pitchers on the staff who didn’t pitch in either Game 1 or Game 2. An electrifying but erratic 20-year-old flamethrower, he struck out 21 batters in 17.1 innings this season but also walked 14 and gave up 18 hits. Under normal circumstances, he would not be a go-to option in leveraged situations in the postseason.

But these were not normal circumstances. When it came time for the sixth, the Padres entrusted Patiño with a 1-0 lead and the middle of the Cardinals lineup due up.

“I started looking at it and I said we gotta roll the dice at some point and we had to try to catch lightning in a bottle,” Tingler said. “Obviously we’re trying to get the ball to Pom and Pagan and Rosey down at the end. How’re you gonna do that and what are the matchups? (We ended up) rolling the dice in the sixth with Patino, and he answered the bell.”

Patiño opened the inning by inducing a groundout from Dylan Carlson. He hung a slider that Yadier Molina turned on for a double down the left-field line, but he bounced back by sawing off Paul DeJong for a weak dribbler down the first-base line. A two-out walk to Matt Carpenter put runners on the corners, but with the tying run 90 feet away, Patiño got Dexter Fowler to fly out to center field, ending the threat and keeping the shutout intact.

“We believe in our guys,” Tingler said. “You’re on this team, you’re going to get opportunity to contribute. At the end of the day…believe in the person.

“They hadn’t seen him yet, where they’d seen some of our guys two and three times. So that was kind of the roll of the dice and for that young pitcher to step up.…when he came off the mound, I think that gave us even another shot of juice. It was huge what he did tonight.”

With the lead intact and the heart of their bullpen ready to go, the tension dissipated and the momentum swung firmly in the Padres direction. They took advantage of two Cardinals errors in the seventh to extend their lead to 3-0, and Cronenworth added a solo home run in the eighth for the final blow. Rosenthal, the former Cardinal, wrapped it up in the top of the ninth.

The tension of the bullpen game—going inning to inning, piecing it together, knowing it could all fall apart with one false step—was released in a fit of unbridled joy after the final out. Screams from the apartment buildings overlooking Petco Park were audible through the night as residents flickered their lights on and off. Blaring car horns, thumping music and loud chants permeated the adjacent Gaslamp District for hours after the game. Fans lined up outside the stadium and greeted the players as they emerged from the clubhouse, screaming and chanting in unison.

For the first time in 22 years, San Diego has a postseason series win. They did it in the most unconventional fashion in playoff history.

“We’re just putting our arms around each other, we’re fighting for each other,” Stammen said. “I feel like that group out there in the bullpen is one unit. It’s not 12, 13 guys. It’s one.”

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