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Sizzling Padres Poised for Statement Series Against Dodgers

The Padres begin a three-game series with the Dodgers on Monday and could be atop the National League West by the end of it.

For much of the last decade, the Los Angeles Dodgers have established a healthy gap between themselves and the rest of the National League West. They've won seven consecutive division crowns, and claimed last year's NL West title with a 21-game cushion.

The San Diego Padres, meanwhile, haven't qualified for the playoffs since 2006 and have finished no closer than 16 games behind their Southern California rivals during Los Angeles' dominant divisional run.

But with two weeks to go in the regular season, the Padres are just 2.5 games behind the Dodgers after sweeping the Giants in a Sunday doubleheader to extend their winning streak to seven games. And with a three-game series between the teams set to begin at Petco Park on Monday, Los Angeles can no longer ignore their pesky southernly neighbors' steady climb up the standings. A sweep would put Slam Diego atop the NL West.

Sound crazy? It should, given the recent history—let alone the deep history—of the two franchises. But these aren't your father's Padres.

The Padres have won 11 of their last 13 games, immediately validating general manager A.J. Preller's decision to maniacally cash in his trade chips for the likes of Mike Clevinger, Trevor Rosenthal, Mitch Moreland, Austin Nola, Jason Castro and Taylor Williams at the trade deadline. Clevinger, pitching to Nola, hurled a seven-inning shutout against the Giants in San Diego's first game on Sunday. Rosenthal closed out the other.

San Diego Padres starting pitcher Mike Clevinger (L) and catcher Austin Nola (22) celebrate after defeating the San Francisco Giants at Petco Park.

Those upgrades—which, unlike Preller's first attempted jump to contention in 2015, didn't require the loss of San Diego's most prized prospects—have helped the Padres withstand a recent slump from MVP candidate Fernando Tatis Jr. But the players who've been in SoCal all season were already doing quite well, thank you very much.

Veteran holdovers Manny Machado and Eric Hosmer are hitting as well as they ever have. Wil Myers has never looked better, except maybe in the minds of prospect evaluators around 2012. Jake Cronenworth is the National League Rookie of the Year favorite. Dinelson Lamet is a Cy Young contender, and Zach Davies may have pushed presumed ace Chris Paddack out of the first-round playoff rotation. 

Jayce Tingler's squad has outscored its opponents 81-29, an average of four runs per game, since the first of Preller's trade deadline acquisitions were activated onto the roster. The juggernaut Dodgers, meanwhile, have outscored their opponents by an MLB-best 2.2 runs per game this season.

Small sample size? Sure. But every data point this season is the result of a small sample size. And while the Padres have been peaking over the past couple weeks, the Dodgers are scuffling by their standards. They lost their first series of the season to the floundering Rockies last weekend before suffering their worst loss of the season by blowing a three-run lead to the Astros in the ninth inning on Saturday.

A hallmark of the Padres' season has been their aggressiveness—not just on the basepaths, where they've swiped an MLB-best 44 bases, but in the organization's overall mindset. Team president Ron Fowler set the tone in the offseason by threatening that "heads will roll" if the team didn't show progress in 2020. Even after San Diego appeared set to comfortably accomplish that goal via a playoff berth as the trade deadline approached, Preller stole the headlines for a few days, proving to anyone who'll pay attention that the Padres aren't content with qualifying for the postseason. They want to steal the division from the Dodgers, too. 

Quick Hits:

  • Alec Mills' no-hitter must be one of the most improbable in baseball history. Not only was he a 22nd-round pick out of University of Tennessee at Martin, making him the first Skyhawk to make the majors; he was a walk-on at the Ohio Valley Conference school. Mills is a 28-year-old who spent parts of eight seasons in the minors before breaking camp with the Cubs this summer. Stories like his will, unfortunately, become less common after the gutting of the minor-league system.
  • I would argue getting no-hit by Mills was not the most embarrassing thing to happen to the Brewers on Sunday. That would be letting Javy Baez score from second base on a sacrifice fly. I imagine third baseman Eric Sogard got an earful from Brewers manager Craig Counsell when he got back in the dugout.
  • Albert Pujols' 660th home run, which moved him into a tie for fifth all-time along with Willie Mays, was up there with his most majestic bombs. It may have been hit at Coors Field, but it would've sailed into the stands anywhere.
  • The Braves owe a sizable chunk of their success this season to Adam Duvall, who's launched 10 home runs in Atlanta's last 14 games and 13 overall on the year. He also came up with clutch hits in Atlanta's two NLDS wins against St. Louis last year and is a two-time Gold Glove finalist. The 32-year-old outfielder, who doesn't reach free agency until 2021, isn't a prime extension candidate given his age and Liberty Media's tight-fisted approach to roster building. But the Braves will miss him if he walks after next season.