Let’s start with an obvious point: Of all four Division Series, the most compelling matchup is the National League battle between the Dodgers and Padres. Storylines overflow: Fernando Tatis Jr., Manny Machado and Wil Myers versus Mookie Betts, Clayton Kershaw and Cody Bellinger.
And the series has drama for the Dodgers, who have won eight consecutive NL West titles without a World Series win. The Dodgers haven’t won the World Series since 1988 and have lost two of the last three, one to the Boston Red Sox and the other to the Houston Astros. In this abbreviated season, Los Angeles finished with 43 wins in a 60-game schedule, which figures to be 116 wins if the season had been 162 games.
After finishing last in the NL West the last two seasons, the Padres are the underdogs. They haven’t been in the postseason since 2006 or the World Series since 1998, when they lost to the New York Yankees. Before beating St. Louis in the wild card round, their last postseason victory celebration was beating Atlanta to make the 1998 World Series.
San Diego finished six games behind the Dodgers in the division race, winning 37 games. They beat St. Louis in the first round without their two best starters, Mike Clevinger and Dinelson Lamet, and won the clincher with a feat that’s never happened in baseball history:
The Padres, wearing new pinstriped flashy gold and brown uniforms with bold letters, pitched a nine-man shutout in a 4-0 win. For the series, the Padres used 26 appearances by 13 pitchers to cover 27 innings.
The Padres-Dodgers series starts Tuesday in Arlington, Texas, in Globe Life Park, the new home of the Texas Rangers, one of the bubbles established by Major League Baseball for this postseason.
The Dodgers beat the Milwaukee Brewers in the wild card round and will have the same rotation against the Padres. That means Walker Buehler, who has been battling a blister, will start Game 1, with a piggyback appearance from lefty Julio Urías, developing a sharp contrast.
Kershaw will start Game 2 with rookies Tony Gonsolin the third game and Dustin May the fourth. Who knows how the Dodgers would handle Game 5?
Their bullpen is strong with Blake Treinen, Joe Kelly and Jake McGee in the setup roles for what appears to be two pitchers sharing the closer’s role, Kenley Jansen and Brusdar Graterol, a pitcher the Dodgers received in an offseason trade from the Minnesota Twins for starter Kenta Maeda.
The Dodgers’ pitching has been exceptional all season. They led the NL with a 3.02 ERA - the Cincinnati Reds were second at 3.84 - and also had the lowest WHIP (1.06).
The Dodgers lineup also led the league in runs scored with 349 and was second in OPS at .821. Betts, their $365 million outfielder acquired in a trade from Boston, hit .292 with 16 home runs during the regular season and hit three doubles in the Milwaukee series. For the season, the Dodgers’ Justin Turner hit .307, A.J. Pollock .292 with 16 home runs and Cory Seager .307.
The Padres, who were third in NL runs scored with 325, were 16-13 in August, but played their best in September, going 15-8. With the NFL Chargers leaving town in 2017, the Padres are the only sports team around, but fans are left out of the stadium because of the pandemic.
Still, Padres players say they can hear fans outside the stadium cheering.
“There would be nothing sweeter than to see this place sold out, to see the fans going crazy,’’ Padres first basemen Eric Hosmer told reporters via Zoom.
San Diego set a record by hitting grand slams in four consecutive games during an August streak and then became the first team in baseball history to hit five grand slams in six days two days later.
Their power and never-give-up style allows them to be the best run-scoring team in the league from the seventh inning on. The Padres’ 11-9 Game 2 win against St. Louis illustrated that: Down 6-2 in the sixth inning, they slammed five home runs over three innings to win a game that’s going down as an instant classic in Padres history.
Their big-name money players consistently hit: Tatis, 21, one of the game’s most exciting players, hit .277 with 17 home runs. Machado, the former Oriole, hit .324 with a .370 on-base percentage and 16 home runs. Myers was at .288 with 15 home runs, Hosmer .287 and nine homers.
And then there’s rookie second baseman Jake Cronenworth, who is hitting .285 with a .354 on-base percentage.
So much for remembering last-place finishes in three of the last four seasons.
Machado and Tatis bring spectacular defensive highlights daily on the left side of the infield. Machado hit .182 for the Dodgers in the 2018 World Series.
As the Aug. 31 trade deadline approached, the team’s general manager, A.J. Preller traded with Kansas City for closer Trevor Rosenthal after Padres closer Kirby Yates was injured. Preller remade his bullpen in a few trades.
Preller also traded six players from a rich farm system to Cleveland to get Clevinger and complement Lamet.
Clevinger had a 2.84 ERA in four starts before he was sidelined with an elbow problem. Lamet had a 2.09 ERA in 12 starts before he went down with a biceps issue. The rest of the Padres rotation is iffy with Zach Davies, Chris Paddock and Garrett Richards.
The Padres haven’t announced if Lamet or Clevinger will be ready for the NLDS. It’s one thing to beat the Cardinals without their two best starters. It’s a tougher task to beat the high-powered Dodgers.
The Padres could always return to nine relievers, each pitching an inning.
But do they expect history to repeat itself?
Prediction: Dodgers in four.