The Dodgers need to figure out how to beat the Padres’ bullpen before it’s too late.
The 111-win Dodgers and 89-win San Diego Padres were separated by 22 games in the National League West standings, a Grand Canyon-sized gap that included the Dodgers’ 14-5 domination in their season series.
On Wednesday they stood even at one victory each in what’s now a best-of-three NL Division Series, with Games 3 and 4 scheduled for Friday and Saturday at Petco Park. After marauding through the season, the Dodgers are about to face serious pressure for the first time in a while, and who knows how they’ll react.
That franchise record they set for wins in a season? The flashy offensive numbers they put up? Their major league-leading 48 comeback wins? None of that meant anything Wednesday after they left 10 runners on base (including seven in the last four innings) and went zero-for-eight with runners in scoring position in a 5-3 loss to the poised Padres at Dodger Stadium.
What might have been a romp for the Dodgers has turned into a tightrope walk. Without a safety net. In high winds.
“We know they’re the division champs. They own the best record in baseball,” said Padres third baseman Manny Machado, who was unfazed by continued jeers from the announced sellout crowd. “They’ve played very well against us all year, but at the end of the day we’re going to go out there and compete, and we’re going to go out there and leave it on the field.”
The Padres’ suddenly immaculate bullpen has stopped the Dodgers cold, and they haven’t figured out what to do about it.
The Dodgers are four for 32 (.125) against the Padres’ bullpen. On Wednesday, three relievers combined to give up no runs and allow four hits over four innings, closing the game with a four-out save from the recently revived Josh Hader. San Diego’s relievers pitched 9 1/3 innings in the first two games of the series and yielded four hits, no runs and four walks while striking out nine.
The Padres aren’t doing anything surprising, several Dodgers said, not after having faced them 19 times in the regular season. What’s surprising is how frustrated and unlike themselves the Dodgers have looked at the plate.
“They have good arms. We knew that. But they seem pretty locked in right now, making good pitches when they have to,” said shortstop Trea Turner, whose misplay of a grounder in the sixth inning contributed to a rally that put the Padres ahead for good.
“We had a lot of guys on base today. That’s kind of a positive, but we didn’t get a win. That’s probably the difference in the game. All those people we had on base, the opportunities, and we just get a hit here or there and the game can change really quick. So, there’s some positives and things we need to work on as well.”
And no time to fix those things.
“They’re just making really good pitches, not giving in. And that’s what playoff baseball is,” Dodgers second baseman Gavin Lux said of the Padres’ bullpen.
Not that the Dodgers are doing much against San Diego’s starters, either.
After starting six-for 14 in Game 1, the Dodgers have since gone 11-53 (.208) overall. All three of their runs Wednesday were produced by solo home runs off Padres starter Yu Darvish, a blast to deep center by Freddie Freeman with two out in the first, a shot to right by Max Muncy to lead off the second and give the Dodgers a 2-1 lead, and a shot to left by Trea Turner with one out in the third.
The Dodgers are 17 for 67 (.254) in the series and three for 16 with runners in scoring position. That isn’t the team they were all season. But that’s who they were when it mattered most: a team that stirred but couldn’t put together a big inning.
Machado said the turning point Wednesday came when Padres reliever Robert Suarez entered the game in the sixth inning with Will Smith on third and Muncy on first after back-to-back singles. Suarez struck out Justin Turner swinging and got Lux to ground into a double play.
Suarez escaped another precarious situation in the seventh, after a single by Cody Bellinger and a double by Mookie Betts with one out. He got Trea Turner to ground out, and after intentionally walking Freeman, he retired Smith on a line out to center.
“He got out of two big jams there. He came in with Yu [leaving runners] on first and third. Got out of that jam, which was huge,” Machado said. “Then another one created the next inning as well, and he got out of it, and that was — I think that was a big difference of the game right there. I think they come across or even score one, I think the game changes big time. He was able to put that stop to it. Not only did he do it once, but he did it twice.”
Two more performances like that, and the Dodgers’ season could be over.
Lux said the Dodgers remain calm and will maintain that mindset. “We have a lot of guys that have been here, been in elimination games, been in World Series elimination games, Game 7 of the World Series,” he said.
“Slow heartbeat team, slow pulse, and we’re going to move on to the next one and I think we have all the confidence in the world that we’re going to take two out of the next three.”
Confidence is a must. So are better at-bats against the Padres’ so-far invincible bullpen.