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Upstart Padres are built to challenge the Dodgers in NL West

Upstart Padres are built to challenge the Dodgers in NL West
San Diego Padres' Manny Machado gestures as he rounds the bases after hitting a two-run home run during the first inning against the Dodgers. (Gregory Bull / Associated Press)

Wil Myers joined the San Diego Padres before the 2015 season, which means he has spent half a decade in the National League West living underneath the boot of the Dodgers. For the Padres, a perpetual also-ran in Southern California, the Dodgers resided “on a pedestal,” Myers explained. The situation has grown tiresome.

The lopsided dynamic is understandable. The Dodgers have won the division every season since 2013; the Padres have not finished higher than third since 2010. But for Myers, there was little use dwelling in the past. As Myers prepared for the first meeting between the teams in 2019, an eventual 4-3 Dodgers victory, he declined to place extra significance on the series. The key to dethroning the Dodgers, he suggested, was not worrying about how his team measured up against them.

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“We don’t want to think of it with the Dodgers as ‘OK, we’re even with them now,’” Myers said. “We’re playing our game. It’s not about the Dodgers. It’s not about what they’re doing. It’s not about watching their scoreboard. It’s about what we do every single day.”

The rhetoric from Myers from a chorus in his teammates and their manager as the Padres prepared before the game. The team had just returned from a trip to the East Coast that featured more victories than two defeats. Fewer than two games separated them in the standings from the Dodgers. Myers did not want to fixate on the size of the gap, or the opponent in front of them.

“We need to come in and say ‘It’s just another team that we’re going out there to play,’ and put our best foot forward,” Myers said.

The Padres did that in Friday’s first inning, in the form of a ferocious swing from former Dodger Manny Machado, their $300-million infielder. San Diego signed him to stabilize their youthful clubhouse. Machado can also commit acts of violence against baseballs. When Clayton Kershaw let a slider leak over the plate, Machado bludgeoned it into the left-field seats for a two-run blast.

Machado did not sprint around the bases. He admired his handiwork from the batter’s box, holding his bat aloft before flicking it into the grass. Inside the dugout, his teammates cackled and gawked. This was the role the Padres envisioned for Machado when they inked him to a 10-year contract.

The opening salvo was not enough. The Dodgers erased a three-run deficit in the middle innings and fashioned a go-ahead, ninth-inning rally off reigning National League reliever of the month Kirby Yates. No reigns would end on Friday.

On the first night of this series, the Dodgers benefited by avoiding the two brightest prospects on the Padres roster, with shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. nursing a strained hamstring and rookie pitcher Chris Paddack slated to start on Monday. But San Diego still possesses an enviable amount of talent, with Machado, first baseman Eric Hosmer and second baseman Ian Kinsler lined up as the clubhouse leaders.

“We have a pretty strong mentality in here,” Machado said. “We want to win, and we know we’re good. We know they’re a great ball club. And we’re going to go out there and try to do everything possible to take them down from the top.”

Before Machado arrived, the chief source of intrigue between their two clubs involved their managers. The Padres hired Andy Green after the 2015 season. The team declined to interview Dave Roberts, a San Diego native who had spent five seasons as a member of Bud Black’s coaching staff. Spurned by his organization, Roberts wowed the Dodgers brass and replaced Don Mattingly.

The animosity between Green and Roberts surfaced during a game in summer 2017. When Dodgers pitcher Alex Wood threatened to drill Padres outfielder Jose Pirela for stealing signs, Green jawed with Roberts. The duo had to be separated, with Roberts shouting across the diamond at Green, “You and me!”

After the scuffle, Green mentioned how he envisioned his club competing with the Dodgers for the division in the future. He did not want his group to feel intimidated. Asked to revisit those comments on Friday, Green bypassed the question. “All I really have to say is we like our club,” Green said. “We like what we have right now.”

The future in San Diego is not dim. The duo of Tatis and Paddack looked outstanding in April. The veterans provide ballast. There is more help on the way from the farm.

But standing in their way, as always, remain the Dodgers. Myers knows this.

“We don’t want this to be the same old Padres of the last few years,” Myers said. “This is a different team. We go out, and nobody scares on either side of the ball.”

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