The empty stadiums of this baseball season have produced a bizarre soundtrack: home runs clanging against plastic seats, batters swearing after popups, pitchers grunting on each delivery. On Friday night in San Diego, as the Padres beat the Cardinals 4–0 in Game 3 of the National League Wild Card Series, the most common noise was a different one: that of the bullpen door swinging open.
In 119 years of Major League Baseball, no team had ever cobbled together nine scoreless innings from nine different pitchers. On Friday, over 146 pitches and three hours and 21 minutes, San Diego produced a shutout from the stretch.
Righty Craig Stammen snuck breaking stuff by them. Lefty Tim Hill mixed two-seamers and four-seamers. Righty Pierce Johnson froze them with his curveball. Lefty Adrián Morejón dominated with four pitches. Righty Luis Patiño, a 20-year-old making his postseason debut, fired 98 mph. Righty Austin Adams faced one hitter—Paul Goldschmidt—and struck him out on six straight sliders. Righty Emilio Pagán induced lazy flyballs. Lefty Drew Pomeranz paired his four-seamer and his knuckle curve. And finally, righty Trevor Rosenthal, who spent last season battling the yips, struck out the side looking.
“What those guys did this series and then tonight, I mean, wow,” said manager Jayce Tingler afterward. “I don't know what to say. They've been overworked, they've been overtaxed. The medical team, getting these guys last night, staying late, working on ’em, getting here early, working on ’em. And then man [after] man, everybody came up and said, ‘I'm good. Give me the ball.’ ‘I'm good. Give me the ball.’”
The Padres ended up using 26 pitchers in 27 innings of the series. When they imagined their October in September, this is not what it looked like. Their relief corps had already taken significant hits: In March, Andres Muñoz underwent Tommy John surgery. On July 22, José Castillo strained his left lat muscle. On Aug. 15, closer Kirby Yates succumbed to bone chips in his elbow. On Aug. 16, San Diego coughed up a two-run, eighth-inning lead to drop its fifth straight game and record its fifth blown save, third most in the sport. The bullpen ERA stood at 6.48, also the third worst in baseball.
Indefatigable GM A.J. Preller broke his own record by exchanging 26 players in three days before the trade deadline. He bolstered the bullpen with Rosenthal, Adams and righty Dan Altavilla, but the biggest addition was starter Mike Clevinger. The Padres believed they were finally positioned to win their first playoff series since 1998: Clevinger and Dinelson Lamet would headline the rotation, the dueling MVP candidates of shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. and third baseman Manny Machado would key the offense and then a few trusted relievers would close games.
Then Clevinger left his Sept. 23 start after an inning, citing biceps tightness. Two days later, Lamet left his start in the fourth inning with tightness in his biceps. Neither recovered in time to make the Wild Card Series roster. Suddenly San Diego was down to two starters: Zach Davies, who has pitched well this season but is not an ace, and Chris Paddack, who had a 4.73 ERA this year.
Paddack gave up six runs in 2 1/3 innings in Game 1. The Padres lost 7–4. Davies gave up four runs in two innings in Game 2. San Diego hit five home runs to force Game 3. And an exhausted parade of relievers trotted out to the mound, one after another.
“They all came in with an attitude [of], I'm going to attack and I'm going to be in the zone and I'm going to get ahead of hitters,” said catcher Austin Nola, who arrived in Preller’s August flurry, immediately began studying his new teammates and then received every pitch of the series. He said he was not surprised that the team had handled the loss of its two aces so well.
“Those two guys are just phenomenal pitchers,” he said, “But as I came to this organization, I realized how many good arms we have, and they showed it for sure.”
But the best news for the Padres is that they may not have to do this again. Clevinger and Lamet both played catch Friday morning. They might be available for the NLDS.