SAN DIEGO — It’s looking grim.
The Dodgers, kings of the regular season, are one defeat away from elimination. They’re slumping at the worst possible time, wasting opportunity after opportunity against a San Diego pitching staff, and especially bullpen, that they pretty much had their way against in winning 14 of 19 in the regular season.
If they needed a reminder that the postseason is a different environment, they got it Friday night at Petco Park. The first clue might have been a crowd that, for a change, was heavily pro-Padres – and one that not only screamed its collective lungs out all night but kept up the noise long after Josh Hader had struck out Trayce Thompson to wrap up a 2-1 San Diego victory.
The noise, a dramatic change from the Dodger fans’ usual takeover at Petco, might have helped the Padres. But the basic element of this Dodgers difficulty – dare we say it, this potential Dodgers collapse – is an inability to cash in scoring opportunities, and an inability to solve San Diego’s bullpen.
The Dodgers are 0 for their last 19 with runners in scoring position in this series, dating to the third inning of their 5-3 victory in Game 1. They were 0 for 8 in their 5-3 loss in Game 2. They were 0 for 9 on Friday night.
And they are 0 for 10 with runners in scoring position against Padres relief pitchers, who have shut out the Dodgers for 13 innings in this series and could turn out to be the unsung heroes.
“Two weeks left in the season we were talking amongst ourselves and saying if we get into this bullpen, we have a lot of faith in these guys,” Padres outfielder Trent Grisham said. “They’re all starting to throw the ball well, Hader is starting to turn it around, Luis (Garcia) had been doing it all year, and then (Robert) Suarez started to really show out.
“I know we have a multitude of guys before that if we get in a jam with a starter. We’ve been talking about it all year. These guys, they’ve really showed up and showed out, and it’s awesome to watch.”
So for the Dodgers, Saturday night’s Game 4 is perilous. The Padres will send Joe Musgrove to the mound, six days after he pitched seven one-hit innings to help eliminate the New York Mets in the wild-card series. And, presumably, everyone in the Padres’ suddenly air-tight bullpen will be available for duty in Game 4, after Nick Martinez, Garcia, Suarez and Hader took down 11 outs Friday.
Maybe the Dodgers’ word of the day is waste.
Waste, as in leaving runners on base.
Waste, as in squandering sometimes great and sometimes gutsy pitching of their own. Jake Cronenworth’s RBI single against a struggling Tony Gonsolin in the first and Grisham’s home run against Andrew Heaney in the fourth were the only blemishes, and relievers Yency Almonte, Alex Vesia, Evan Phillips and Tommy Kahnle allowed the Padres only two walks (both by Vesia) and retired the last eight Padres in a row.
Most significantly, though, it’s the potential waste of 111 victories, a dynamic regular season that essentially goes up in smoke if the Dodgers don’t dig themselves out of this hole the next two nights.
They’ve been here before. Those 106-win regular seasons in 2019 and again last year? For an organization whose goal every year is to win the World Series, those are nice baubles but hollow if they don’t lead to the ultimate prize.
“I don’t think the mentality changes,” Manager Dave Roberts said in the wake of Friday’s defeat.
“The core of this group has been in this position before, and we’re going to approach it like it’s the way it is. It’s win or go home. We’ve got to play better baseball. When we do have opportunities to cash in, we’ve got to take advantage of them.”
So how do you explain the approach so far? Or the vaunted top four in the batting order going 6 for 30 (.200) over the last two games and accounting for just two runs, on solo homers by Freddie Freeman and Trea Turner on Wednesday night.
“I think that we’re being hyperaggressive early in counts and not staying on the ball,” Roberts said. “They’re getting us with spin. They’re getting us on the outside part of the plate. We’re not (giving them) any opportunities to make mistakes, and that’s more specific to the ’pen.”
Meanwhile, were we all seduced by that 14 of 19 regular-season dominance against the Padres? Did we maybe nod and wink a little too vigorously when Padres general manager A.J. Preller acquired Juan Soto, Josh Bell, Brandon Drury and Hader at the deadline, obviously with October in mind?
Look who’s one victory away from being a genius, and it’s not Andrew Friedman.
“He’s (Preller) done a great job with this roster,” Padres manager Bob Melvin said. “There’s no doubt about that.
“Look, we were thinking postseason in spring training, and then to enhance the roster like he typically does along the way gives us even a better chance. Definitely, hats off to A.J.”
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What those moves did was to give the Padres a puncher’s chance in the postseason, and they keep landing telling blows.
On Saturday night, they have a chance to wind up for one last haymaker. But the Dodgers can evade it and get it back to Dodger Stadium for a Game 5 on Sunday, when the pitching matchup (presumably a Julio Urías-vs.-Mike Clevinger rematch) would favor them.
The task isn’t insurmountable. Musgrove is 0-6 lifetime with a 4.04 ERA against the Dodgers, and he was 0-2 with a 3.63 ERA and 1.212 WHIP in three starts against them this season.
The catch? That was then. This is now.
“It’s where we’re at,” Roberts said. “It was a very good regular season, but as we said before, none of that matters. We’re in a five-game series against a very good ballclub that we’re familiar with, and the team that plays the best baseball is going to win the series. And up to this point, they’ve played better than we have.”
If the muscle memory of those 14 wins out of 19 regular-season games against the Padres is still there, it’s time to summon it.