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Max Scherzer Is Showing the Padres What They’re Still Missing

Even after stockpiling what seemed to be a mighty collection of arms over the last year-plus, San Diego can't match the one who got away.

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Max Scherzer was supposed to be a Padre. When on July 29 The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported that San Diego was “close to acquiring Scherzer,” it felt all but guaranteed that the three-time Cy Young winner was set to be the latest top-line addition of GM A.J. Preller's tenure in "America’s Finest City." One of the sport’s most trusted writers and scoopsters, Rosenthal wasn't exactly incorrect, but his reporting turned out to be premature, and the Dodgers swooped in to break the hearts of Padres fans, as they often have while winning 10 National League West division titles since the Padres won their most recent one in 2006.

And so, on Thursday night at Petco Park, less than two months after suffering a meltdown for the ages at the same venue, Scherzer fittingly delivered his finest start so far with Los Angeles, dealing a crushing blow to the team that nearly acquired him to be its ace in the hole. This time, San Diego native Victor Camarena wasn’t around to hit a glorious grand slam to save the Padres (the reliever was optioned to Triple A earlier Thursday following his loss in Wednesday night’s instant classic).

Scherzer two-hit the Padres through 7 2/3 innings while racking up 10 strikeouts with one walk on 104 pitches in a 4–0 victory. He only approached trouble in the fifth, when he allowed a leadoff double to Trent Grisham and hit Jurickson Profar with a pitch. But the 37-year-old struck out Ha-Seong Kim and induced a double play from Victor Caratini to escape. No San Diego baserunner reached third base, let alone home plate, as Scherzer lowered his ERA to 2.51 (fifth in the NL) and his NL-best WHIP 0.83.

Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Max Scherzer (31) throws a pitch against the San Diego Padres during the first inning at Petco Park.

Opposing Scherzer was Yu Darvish, making his return from a two-week stint on the injured list with hip tightness. The five-time All-Star came into the game with a career 1.33 ERA against the Dodgers, the best mark of any starter in MLB history with a minimum of four starts against the franchise. He’d done well in three outings against them this season, allowing just three runs over 20 innings. But he was not at his best Thursday, continuing a string of nine winless starts that’s seen his ERA balloon by nearly a run and a half from 2.44 in late June to its current mark of 3.80 (16th in NL).

Darvish couldn’t find a consistent release point early on and frequently missed his spots badly. After the righthander nevertheless set down the first six Dodgers he faced, his command issues came back to bite him the third. Billy McKinney drew a leadoff walk. Light-hitting catcher Austin Barnes then connected with a 3–1 cutter over the middle of the plate for a home run. Three pitches later, Darvish lost control of a fastball and nearly beaned Scherzer, causing him to spin around and lose his helmet. He recovered to retire his counterpart, then allowed consecutive doubles to Trea Turner and Corey Seager to make it 3–0. The 35-year-old needed 35 pitches to get out of the jam. Los Angeles added another run in the fourth when A.J. Pollock, Wednesday night’s hero, ripped a screamer to center field that Grisham misread and let ricochet off his wrist all the way to the wall. That allowed Pollock to scoot to third before scoring on a Cody Bellinger sacrifice fly, providing the contest's final run.

Darvish is one of the game’s premier starters; he finished second in the NL Cy Young voting just last year. But he’s no Scherzer. He’s not a future Hall of Famer with an unimpeachable postseason track record. He’s not someone Padres fans would feel completely at ease with on the mound in October. With the way things have unfolded this season—among them: Blake Snell’s struggles (Wednesday’s stellar start notwithstanding) and Dinelson Lamet’s health issues that have relegated him to the bullpen—there’s no one they can expect to match up against the aces that would await them in the postseason (if they can even get there at this point). Joe Musgrove has been fantastic this season, but he has as many playoff starts as you and I do. The potential is there, but the star power Preller compiled over the last couple of years has collectively dimmed. 

Just as Jacob deGrom’s health seems inextricably tied to the Mets’ playoff hopes, Darvish will probably have to be near the top of his game for the Padres to reverse their stunning collapse over the last month. Chris Paddack, who threw a three-inning simulated game Thursday, will also need to eat up valuable innings after averaging fewer than five frames and a 5.14 ERA across his 19 starts this season. The rotation has deteriorated enough to need the services of Jake Arrieta, whose 7.13 ERA is the worst among pitchers with at least 80 innings in 2021.

The stress on the pitching staff has increased in recent weeks due to an offense that’s slumping at the wrong time. After the Padres were held without a hit over a nine-inning span in Wednesday night’s marathon, only five of their batters reached in Thursday's game. San Diego went 10-for-111 (.090) during the three-game set, and its .674 OPS and 3.96 runs per game over the last month rank above only the Mets and Pirates among NL teams. The recent return of MLB OPS leader Fernando Tatis Jr. from his recurring shoulder injury—albeit as an outfielder, not shortstop to prevent him from getting hurt again—should provide the Padres an offensive boost over the season's final five weeks, but his MVP-level production alone isn't enough to turn things around. That said, San Diego's offense does possess the talent to climb out of its rut. Each of its eight starting position players have an OPS+ above 100 this year, meaning they are above league-average hitters.

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The outlook is far more grim for the pitching staff, as the organization's well of MLB-ready starter prospects has dried up amid the Padres' rotten injury luck.

If there’s any solace San Diego can take away from Thursday’s loss, it’s that Darvish got better as the game progressed and ended his outing by setting down eight of the last nine Dodgers he faced. Padres manager Jayce Tingler said the issue of Darvish’s back “came and went. It may have tightened up a little bit there in the third, fourth. But he said he did some extra stretching and it opened back up, loosened up for him. I thought it was noticeable there in the fifth and sixth, and encouraging he came out feeling well.” But we’re approaching the season’s final month, and September is no time for silver linings.

The cold reality of the situation is the Padres have lost 11 of 13 and 17 of 26, dropping four straight series against the cellar-dwelling D-Backs, the aimless Rockies, the mediocre Phillies and the rival Dodgers. Thursday marked the fifth time they’ve been swept this season, with two of those coming in their last three series.

With the defeat, San Diego fell two games behind the Reds in the wild-card chase and saw its playoff odds decrease to 20.7%, per FanGraphs. Just a month ago, that figure was 91.7%. The Padres have MLB’s toughest remaining strength of schedule, headlined by six more games against the Dodgers and a whopping 10 against the first-place Giants (winners of five straight to maintain baseball's best record), both of whom could be pushing hard for the NL West title into October.

While it's not quite time to write off the Friars, the forecast is gloomy in one of America's sunniest cities. The beginning of the fall could coincide with their rising from the ashes of a once-hopeful campaign gone awry. But, if the Great San Diego Skid of 2021 continues through September, Thursday's shutout loss won't be the only night they're haunted by Scherzer in Dodger Blue. 

Rather, the Padres will be left wanting for the rest of the year, longing for a bona fide ace to lift them up and kicking themselves over the one that got away.

Quick Hits:

• The top-heavy Phillies got bad news about two of their most valuable players Thursday. Rhys Hoskins is out for the season with an abdominal injury, leaving Philadelphia without its leading home-run hitter. Hoskins had launched three home runs in seven games since returning from a groin injury, but the torn abdominal muscle he’d reportedly fought throughout the season worsened enough to prevent him from playing the field, curtailing his 2021 campaign. Brad Miller filled in for Hoskins Thursday, and the team could recall former starting third baseman Alec Bohm to form a platoon at first base. But even if Bohm rediscovers the form he showed as a rookie, it’ll be a downgrade from Hoskins. 

Meanwhile, No. 3 starter Zach Eflin was activated from the injured list only to be scratched from his scheduled start after the right knee injury that’s sidelined him since mid-July flared up. It’s unclear how long it’ll take for him to actually take the mound, but the suddenly flailing Phillies are 5.5 games back of the Braves and could use some quality reinforcements that are unlikely to arrive.

• We are witnessing the Yankees’ longest winning streak in 50 years. They won their 12th game in a row, this time beating the A's in Oakland, for their 11th such streak in franchise history and first since September 1961. Aaron Judge looped an RBI single into right field in the ninth inning to plate the winning run. Aroldis Chapman pitched around a Starling Marte single and stolen base (Marte’s MLB-leading 40th of the season) in the bottom half of the frame to earn his 24th save and tamp down talk of his removal from the closer’s role. We’ll see how long that lasts, but for now, all is well in the Bronx.

• Chris Sale recorded his third career immaculate inning Thursday against the Twins, matching Sandy Koufax as the only pitchers in history with three. He seems to be all the way back, which makes a potential Yankees–Red Sox wild-card matchup between Sale and Gerrit Cole all the more enticing.

• Wasted in San Diego's loss was Trent Grisham's top-shelf home-run robbery of Pollock, who was denied his second homer in as many nights.

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