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Dodgers-Padres Rivalry Delivers in Heated Opening Act

Though they tend avoid acknowledging any rivalry, the Dodgers struck the first blow against the Padres, who represent their biggest challengers to repeating as champs.

Welcome to The Opener, where every weekday morning you’ll get a fresh, topical column to start your day from one of’s MLB writers.

After three games, 30 innings and a whole lot of fun, the only suitable response to what took place at Petco Park this weekend are the immortal words of the renowned Australian philosopher Russell Crowe:

Are you not entertained?

It’s very rare when hype and reality coalesce, but that’s what happened over three games between the defending champion Dodgers and their biggest threat to the throne, the Padres. The Dodgers won two of three, and all three games were close, but the real winners are all of us who get to watch this budding rivalry unfold over the next six months and beyond.

Despite what we all saw play out between the lines, that word “rivalry” seems to be a point of contention—at least as far as the Dodgers are concerned. They repeatedly referred to this weekend’s bout as just another series. As Clayton Kershaw put it after Saturday’s game, “We don’t really care about rivalries or who we’re playing. We’re just trying to win a series,” per Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register.

But actions speak louder than words, and the evidence suggests that the defending champs took this mid-April series just a skosh more seriously than they would have against any other opponent. For starters, Dave Roberts re-shuffled his rotation a bit to ensure that he’d have Walker Buehler, Clayton Kershaw and Trevor Bauer lined up to face San Diego. About the move, Roberts said, “You can read into that what you want,” before acknowledging the Padres’ immense talent and the importance of getting his starters extra rest when possible.

Then there were the games themselves, which had the feel of a playoff atmosphere from the very first pitch. Friday’s game was a beauty, featuring late-inning rallies by both sides and was eventually won by the Dodgers, 11-6, in 12 innings, producing this gem of a win probability chart:

chart (1)

The moment that stands out as signifying something of a rivalry came in the bottom of the 10th, when Dodgers reliever Dennis Santana plunked San Diego’s Jorge Mateo, causing both benches to clear.

You can actually hear the eagerness in the voice of Padres play-by-play announcer Don Orsillo as the players converge in the middle of the diamond. The two sides did not, in fact, fight, but the incident was representative of the overall tone for the weekend.

dodgers padres

Then on Saturday, it was Kershaw in the middle of a confrontation with the Padres’ Jurickson Profar, who was granted first base after hitting catcher Austin Barnes’s glove on a swing. Kershaw had some choice words about the quality of Profar’s swing, which Profar was not too keen on hearing.

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Unlike Friday’s late-inning slugfest, Saturday’s game was a pitchers’ duel in which the Dodgers held a 2-0 lead entering the bottom of the ninth. After runners reached second and third with two outs, Mookie Betts saved the day by laying out to make a game-ending catch.

The catch was incredible—a five-star grab with a 10% catch probability, per’s Sarah Langs—and certainly one worth celebrating. But all of the excitement shown by the Dodgers after the win only added evidence that their words thus far have betrayed the truth: this is the true-blue, honest-to-goodness best rivalry in baseball.

That the Dodgers tend to avoid the rivalry talk actually makes it better. They’re the Dodgers, after all; the defending champions, winners of eight straight division titles and the clear-cut favorite to win it all again in 2021. Why should they make a big deal about playing the Padres? The big brother never acts like he’s worried about the little brother, which only makes the little brother want to win that much more.

After the Padres won Sunday’s finale, 5-2, Roberts again downplayed the Padres as adversaries, insisting his team does not look for outside motivators to find an edge and referencing the Dodgers’ track record of success against San Diego in recent years.

“I think we’re really good about kind of focusing on how we play and the brand of baseball we play. There certainly are series or teams that are going to be more magnified,” Roberts said, per Plunkett. “But … we’ve done pretty well in the last five years when the Padres weren’t as good as they were. So I think that we’re going to keep doing the same thing we’ve been doing.”

eric hosmer

The Padres believe they belong in the same tier as the Dodgers, and we’ve seen nothing to think otherwise. While Padres fans have likely viewed the Dodgers as bitter foes for years, first baseman Eric Hosmer views 2021 as the dawn of a new chapter between the two sides.

“I don’t know if I could have said that my first couple years here, but there certainly is a rivalry now to this series and against that team,” Hosmer said, per Kevin Acee of The San Diego Union-Tribune. “It’s just the start of it. It’s going to be fun all year.”

Hosmer’s right about that last part—we’ve only just begun. The two sides meet again for four games at Dodger Stadium starting on Thursday. The Dodgers insist this isn’t a rivalry. Thankfully for us, they don’t get to decide.

Quick hits:

  • Shane Bieber remains untouchable. Bieber struck out 13 batters in a 6-3 win over the Reds on Sunday, becoming the first player to strike out 10 or more hitters in his first four starts of the season since the mound was moved back to 60 feet, six inches—way back in 1893.
  • Kyle Hendricks made a dubious bit of history by becoming the first Cubs pitcher (and ninth pitcher ever) to give up four home runs in the first inning of Sunday’s 13-4 loss to the Braves.
  • White Sox closer Liam Hendriks nearly pulled off the rare feat of recording two saves in Sunday’s doubleheader against the Red Sox. He saved the first game—a 3-2 Chicago win—with a scoreless, 16-pitch seventh inning. He would have entered in another save situation in Game 2, but the White Sox scored an insurance run in the sixth to take a four-run lead. Hendiks came in anyway and pitched a perfect final frame, needing just eight pitches this time.
  • The Mets sealed a 2-1 win over the Rockies in style when James McCann threw out Trevor Story trying to steal second base with two outs in the bottom of the ninth.

It was the Mets’ fourth one-run win of the season, though fans can’t complain too much about sitting atop the NL East—at least they’re not the Yankees.

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