Early on in the 2021 season, Dodgers-Padres was considered the best series in baseball, a battle between the sport’s presumed two best and most talented teams and a treat fans would be allowed to enjoy a whopping 19-times. As the two sides come together tonight in San Diego, some of that luster has since diminished.
The Dodgers have done their part, surging since the All-Star Break to a 78-47 record, second-best in baseball. San Diego, meanwhile, has slipped into a tailspin that leaves them outside the playoff picture entirely, now only 10 games over .500 and a whopping 13 games back of the San Francisco Giants in the National League West.
The Padres have learned a few hard lessons as the season soldiers on, chief among them the importance of a consistent, even-keeled approach over a grueling 6 months. Back in April and May, the energy in the Padres’ dugout was palpable as they ripped off early wins against the Dodgers and built momentum. The problem, of course, was that their energy levels didn’t sustain as they traveled away from their suddenly electrifying home ballpark. At no point this season have the Padres built any kind of decent road record, and currently sit at 27-32 away from Petco Park despite a 41-26 mark at home.
To me, the culprit is obvious – as excitement around the team rose in the city of San Diego and around the media, the Padres’ access to external energy sources was a constant feed for the better part of a full calendar year. They were the darlings of baseball, a franchise that had seen its longstanding losing culture quickly shift as AJ Preller’s spending habits changed. Now suddenly seeing an extended cold streak for the first time since that paradigm shift, San Diego’s clubhouse is tasked with finding energy where it doesn’t exist already.
Perhaps the Dodgers’ trip to San Diego is the spark the Padres need to get their mojo back – after all, the norm in San Diego before 2020 was that those were the only games with decent crowds at Petco Park. The Padres put themselves in this position by failing to exhibit the same level of intensity when the bottom feeders popped up on the schedule – against Colorado and Arizona, San Diego is a combined 7-15 since June 1. At this point, they’re running out of time – looking forward through the Padres schedule, only 7 games remain against teams under .500. Of those, all but 2 are on the road. Otherwise, it’s a brutal slog for a team trying to regain confidence and a playoff spot as the Reds sprint past – the Padres have still 10 games against the Giants (7 on the road), 9 games against the Dodgers, (6 on the road), 3 against the Astros, 3 in St. Louis, and 4 against Atlanta.
For the Dodgers, this week represents a chance to continue what has been an absolute tear through the month of August (15-4). Given the Dodgers’ struggles early on this season in San Diego and the raucous crowds likely to greet them again this week, finding the energy to compete at a high level shouldn’t be difficult at all. The Dodgers have weathered the storm of 2021, and the Padres haven’t – this week, Los Angeles will look to beat the remaining bits of life out of a team once so full of it.
Tuesday: Julio Urias (13-3, 3.29 ERA) vs Pierce Johnson (3-2, 2.49 ERA)
After a 10-day stint away from the rotation for an “injury” that most would surmise was simply the Dodgers looking to limit his innings for the season, Julio Urias returns Tuesday night to start against the Padres. Julio has been excellent this season in a full-fledged starting role, a trend he had continued into August before being sidelined (1-0, 1.20 ERA). He may be dealing with some sort of a pitch count limit tonight, but the Dodgers’ bullpen should be in great shape to back him up following an off-day Monday and with the knowledge that Walker Buehler and Max Scherzer will pitch the next two nights. Julio faced San Diego during his lone poor month of the season, allowing 6 runs in 4 subpar innings en route to a 6-2 loss on June 21. He hasn’t lost a start since.
He’ll be opposed by Pierce Johnson for San Diego, who will kick off what one would assume will be a full-on bullpen game for the Padres. Johnson has been excellent out of the bullpen for the Padres in August, posting a 1.04 ERA over 8.2 innings of work – but hasn’t recorded more than 4 outs in a single outing all season. It represents the 6th bullpen game of August for the Padres, a symptom of a staff lacking health or effectiveness for the last few months. The Padres also just fired Pitching Coach Larry Rothschild following Sunday’s loss to Philadelphia, a sign of panic for a group that continues to unravel. The Dodgers will look to grind out at-bats and force as many arms through the Padres’ bullpen gates as possible tonight, creating a domino effect they hope will set them up to cruise behind Walker Buehler and Max Scherzer.
Wednesday: Walker Buehler (13-2, 2.11 ERA) vs Blake Snell (6-5, 4.82 ERA)
One of the primary reasons San Diego’s staff hasn’t come close to the juggernaut they hoped it would be has been Blake Snell’s ineffectiveness. The Padres move to acquire Snell in the offseason came with great fanfare, especially after his impressive outings against the Dodgers in the 2020 World Series. Snell’s Baseball Savant page has been as ugly as any starting pitcher in baseball, and the most glaring areas do not bode well against a patient Dodgers’ group. Most notably, Snell’s BB% and Barrel% – which measure how successfully a pitcher avoids walking batters and hard contact – each fall in the 7th percentile among Major League pitchers. A glimmer of hope for San Diego exists in Snell’s home/road splits – at home, Snell’s 4-2 record and 2.68 ERA much more closely represent who they thought they’d be getting than his ghastly road numbers. The Padres will need that version of Snell Wednesday against a rather tough customer in Dodger blue.
Walker Buehler steps to the mound once again Wednesday night, looking to continue the most electric stretch of his young career. His NL Cy Young case is becoming more undeniable by the week, as he’s now gone 8 consecutive starts without allowing more than 2 runs. Buehler faced San Diego twice in April and pitched well despite not being awarded a decision in either outing – combined, he pitched 14 innings while only allowing 4 runs to cross in those starts.
Thursday: Max Scherzer (11-4, 2.65 ERA) vs TBD
The Padres haven’t announced a starting pitcher for Thursday yet, although some rumors seem to suggest Yu Darvish may be eyeing a return to the rotation very soon. If it isn’t Darvish, I’d make a guess Joe Musgrove makes an appearance in the final game of the set. Both pitchers have performed well against the Dodgers this season and will need to continue to if the Padres hope to compete with Mad Max.
Scherzer’s start Thursday represents his first as a Dodger inside the division and will give San Diego a chance to get a look at the pitcher they missed out on at the deadline. Scherzer did struggle with San Diego over two consecutive starts in July, allowing 11 runs in 10.2 combined innings during his only cold stretch of the season. Fernando Tatis Jr. took Max deep on July 8, and he would struggle with command before eventually allowing a very strange grand slam to reliever Daniel Camarena. Luckily for Scherzer, Camarena is extremely unlikely to bat on Thursday night. His second start against the Padres on July 18 was marred by two more home runs, this time hit by Eric Hosmer and Jurickson Profar. Since then, Max has allowed a total of 3 solo home runs over 5 starts.
Max Scherzer has been lights out since joining the Dodgers, pitching to a 2.11 ERA over 21.1 impressive innings, striking out 31 batters thus far over only 4 starts. He’ll look to lean on that sample, rather than his previous 2021 meetings with San Diego, heading into Thursday’s game.