Padres keys to upset Dodgers in NLDS

LOS ANGELES — Having played six series against the Dodgers in his first year as Padres manager — and having lost all six of those series — Bob Melvin sat at the podium in the Petco Park interview room last month and was asked about the prospect of facing Los Angeles for a seventh time in October.

“I hope we do,” Melvin said, confidently.

No, it wasn’t quite the careful-what-you-wish-for brazenness it might sound like. The Padres were fighting for their playoff lives. An October date with the Dodgers meant they’d reached the postseason, then won a Wild Card Series on the road.

Lately, the rivalry has looked as lopsided as it’s ever been. The Dodgers took 14 of their 19 meetings with the Padres during the regular season, and they’ve won nine straight series between them overall. But the Padres, defiant as ever, insisted this time might be different.

Here are four reasons they might be right:

1. This is the best baseball they’ve played

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

They got pitching and defense and production from the entirety of their starting lineup.

“That’s the point of it all — we need everybody,” said center fielder Trent Grisham, the breakout star of that Wild Card Series. “That’s what everyone in this locker room wanted to see. We didn’t want it just to be Manny [Machado] taking over, like he has 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 locker room that breeds confidence and breeds belief, and that’s what you need in a postseason.”

Of course, there’s a reason the Padres haven’t been at their best when facing the Dodgers: The Dodgers are good and very hard to play against. But if there were ever a time for the Padres to take their best shot, it’s now — with a suddenly deep offense, one of the league’s best defenses, and …

2. A healthier, steadier pitching staff

The Dodgers are World Series favorites for good reason. And yet, doesn’t it feel like they enter the playoffs with more than their share of question marks — particularly on the pitching side of things?

They don’t have a settled closer. 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 with regards to their staff. (Unless they’d have beaten the Mets in two and had 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 pitched well lately. In the bullpen, the roles have fallen into place nicely, now that Josh Hader looks like Josh Hader again. Robert Suarez and Luis García have asserted themselves as reliable high-leverage options.

There are holes in the middle innings. And the Dodgers still have one of the most complete pitching staffs around. But the Padres like the way their stacks up.

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

So the Padres are looking to pull a stunning NLDS upset of the Dodgers, you say? As it would happen, they employ someone with experience in precisely that matter. Juan Soto did so with the 2019 Nationals — his game-tying homer off Clayton Kershaw in Game 5 serving as one of that series’ enduring images.

The Padres dealt for Soto in early August, and his first full series with the team was a sweep in LA. He was defiant afterwards, aghast when a reporter asked about the gap between the two clubs.

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

Soto’s Padres tenure is off to a slow start — at least by his lofty standards. But he might be on the verge of an October breakout. He went 4-for-12 (.333) in the Wild Card Series with a backbreaking two-run single off dominant Mets closer Edwin Díaz. Afterwards, Soto turned his attention to the Dodgers.

“We have a pretty good shot,” Soto said. “We’ve been facing them the whole year, so we know what they’ve got. We’ve just got to go out there and play good baseball like we did this series.”

4. The Padres might come out swinging

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

There’s no doubt about that. The Padres played most of September with a renewed sense of urgency, while the Wild Card race tightened. (Really, that dates to a rare team meeting called by Melvin in which he called out his team for its lackluster performance on Sept. 15.)

Since then, the Padres have had something on the line practically every night — and they’ve played like it. The Dodgers, meanwhile, haven’t played a truly meaningful game in that span. By first pitch Tuesday night, they’ll have been sitting for five days.

If the Padres, in a best-of-five series, can deliver the first punch or two, it’d put the Dodgers somewhere they haven’t been very often in this rivalry — on their heels.

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