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Padres hope to stay relevant in NL playoff picture

San Diego Padres' Fernando Tatis Jr. adjusts his helmet before striking out.
San Diego Padres’ Fernando Tatis Jr. adjusts his helmet before striking out during the third inning against the Dodgers on Thursday in San Diego.
(Gregory Bull / Associated Press)

On the first day of this most anticipated season in the half-century of the San Diego franchise, I asked Padres general manager A.J. Preller how the hype of 2021 compared with the hype of 2015.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Preller said, with a thin laugh. “I’ve kind of blacked out that 2015 season.”

You might remember 2015, even if our friends in San Diego would rather not. The Padres loaded up on veterans — Matt Kemp, Craig Kimbrel, Wil Myers, James Shields, the Upton brothers — and Kemp lauded Preller as a “rock star GM.”

The Padres started unloading veterans in June. Preller fired manager Bud Black, then passed over coach Dave Roberts as the interim replacement, and as the permanent replacement. The Padres finished 18 games out of first place in the National League West.

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In this season of the Swagg Chain, the Padres are 16 games out of first place, with one month to play.

The Dodgers and Padres are in a playoff race, but not in the same race.

The Dodgers are trying to catch the San Francisco Giants for first place in the National League West, with a division championship for the winner and a wild-card playoff spot for the loser. The Giants lead by 2½ games.

Max Scherzer, who the Dodgers acquired at the trade deadline despite the Padres’ best efforts, gives up two hits and strikes out 10 in 4-0 Dodgers win.

The Padres are trying to catch the Cincinnati Reds, with the St. Louis Cardinals and Philadelphia Phillies chasing them both. For the final NL wild card spot, that’s a four-team fight.

On July 29, the Giants led the Dodgers by three games, the Padres by 5½. For a few hours that day, reports that Max Scherzer would be traded to the Padres stirred hope and faith in San Diego. The Padres desperately needed starting pitching, and Preller is a frenetic trader.

The next day, the Dodgers traded for Scherzer. The Padres did not trade for a starting pitcher at all.

“We could have added a starting pitcher,” Preller said that day, “and if the other four or five guys don’t pitch like they’re capable of, it’s not going to matter.”

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The Padres did not have enough starting pitchers to complete this three-game series without a bullpen game. The Dodgers swept, almost mockingly, with Scherzer showing San Diego fans exactly what their team missed out on in the series finale. He struck out the side in the first inning, en route to 7 2/3 scoreless innings.

San Diego Padres' Jurickson Profar tosses his bat as he flies out while batting.
San Diego Padres’ Jurickson Profar tosses his bat as he flies out while batting during the second inning against the Dodgers on Thursday in San Diego.
(Gregory Bull / Associated Press)

San Diego batted .090 in the series, with 10 hits in 34 innings. Fernando Tatis Jr. is the NL home run leader and MVP front-runner, but he also just came back from his third stint on the injured list this season. In his past 28 at-bats, he has two hits and 13 strikeouts.

The Padres fired their pitching coach before the Dodgers series, ultimately choosing a new voice in the clubhouse over a new arm. The team needed to win, and soon, in order “to keep the murmur of dissent in the clubhouse from becoming a roar,” the San Diego Union-Tribune reported. The Padres have lost 12 of 14 games.

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“The last couple weeks, it’s been tough watching them, even at home,” said Chip Messenger, a Padres fan whose home includes a balcony that allows him to look into Petco Park.

On Wednesday, Padres manager Jayce Tingler disputed the suggestion that the losing might be getting out of hand.

“When you’re one game back, is that out of hand?” Tingler said.

On Thursday, the Padres lost again. They are two games back now. They still believe.

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The Dodgers sweep of the Padres featured nearly as many home run-saving catches as it did San Diego runs

“We work too hard and we have too much talent,” Tingler said after Thursday’s game. “It’s more than faith.”

The schedule does not favor the Padres. Of their final 28 games, all but two are against teams with winning records, including 10 against the Giants.

Yet all is not lost for the Padres, no matter how powerful the telescope they might need to see first.

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Perhaps the Padres can rally, at least to sneak past the Reds for the final wild card spot.

For the Padres, winning that game could make their season. After the Padres got to the playoffs last year, for the first time in 14 years, the Dodgers brushed them aside in a three-game sweep. If the Padres could exact revenge this fall, even if they failed to advance beyond the one-game playoff, they could do the one thing that defines success in this town.

Beat L.A.


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