In a just world, this week’s three-game regular-season-series finale between the Dodgers and Padres in San Diego would be a mere preview of the eventual National League Championship Series between what are, clearly, the two best teams in the league. I don’t need to tell you that we don’t live in a just world. Still, with the added round of playoffs and the fact that the additional round is a high-risk best-of-three series that every playoff team will have to survive to advance to the Division Series, the chance of an NLCS matchup between the league’s two best teams is even slimmer than usual.
So, rather than looking ahead to an NLCS matchup that may never happen, let’s appreciate this series for what it is, and for the fact that it might be the closest thing we get to a playoff confrontation between these two teams this year.
The Padres enter this three game set just 2 1/2 games behind the Dodgers in the NL West and three behind in the loss column. The Dodgers enter with a magic number to win the division of 11. If the Dodgers sweep, they’ll get that number down to five with 10 games remaining. If the Padres sweep, that magic number will be moot, as the Padres will take a tentative lead in the division and the two teams will be tied in the loss column. For that reason alone, this series should have a postseason feel, even without fans in the stands.
The Dodgers have won four of the seven games between these two teams thus far this season and have outscored San Diego 36-23. However, the last of those games came on August 13. The Padres turned over roughly 30 percent of their active roster at the August 31 trading deadline and enter this series with the third-best record in the majors (31-17, mere percentage points behind the 30-16 White Sox), the second-best run differential (+78, a run ahead of the White Sox), and a seven-game winning streak that is the longest active streak in the majors. The Padres are 9-2 since the deadline, and 20-5 since August 17, besting the Dodgers—who, if you didn’t know, own the majors’ best record and run differential on the season—over both spans.
The Dodgers are fortunate that they will miss the Padres’ biggest deadline addition, 29-year-old righty Mike Clevinger, who threw a seven-inning, two-hit shutout against the Giants as part of Sunday’s doubleheader. Still, San Diego has dramatically improved the production from its catchers with the additions of righty Austin Nola and lefty Jason Castro, and shored up its bullpen with righties Trevor Rosenthal, now their closer, and Dan Altavilla, who have combined to strike out 12 against just one walk in eight scoreless innings since the Padres acquired them. The early returns from lefty first baseman Mitch Moreland have been disappointing, but when incumbent first baseman Eric Hosmer fractured his left index finger on a bunt a week ago, Moreland’s value to the team increased dramatically.
The Padres had a bizarre weekend. After beating the Giants 6-1 on Thursday, their Friday and Saturday games were cancelled, the former just moments before the first pitch, after a Giants player tested positive for COVID-19. That proved to be a false positive, and the two teams made up one of those games as part of Sunday’s doubleheader. The Padres didn’t seem bothered by those events, sweeping the doubleheader by a combined score of 9-1.
Rather, those cancelled games might have benefitted the Padres coming into this series. Between those two days off and Clevenger’s complete game, the Padre bullpen is extremely well rested. San Diego used just three relievers in the last three days, all in Sunday’s nightcap. Rosenthal threw 16 pitches to get the save; Drew Pomeranz, who still hasn’t allowed a run in 15 innings on the season (2 1/3 of them against the Dodgers), threw 11 pitches; and lefty Tim Hill needed just six tosses to get the final two outs of the fifth.
The Dodgers, by comparison, had a bullpen game on Sunday that saw them use eight relievers, including Victor González for 25 pitches and Alex Wood for 23. All 11 of their relievers pitched on Saturday or Sunday, and Kenley Jansen pitched in both games throwing a total of 36 pitches. Jansen hasn’t thrown on three consecutive days since last June, so Dave Roberts will likely try to avoid him Monday night.
Similarly, the Padres starters will all be working on extra rest in this series, Dinelson Lamet on six days’ rest on Monday, and Zach Davies and Chris Paddack (if the latter winds up taking his schedule start on Wednesday, more on that below) on five days’ rest. The Dodgers haven’t announced their starters yet, but they seem likely to go with Clayton Kershaw and Tony Gonsolin on regular rest in the first two games (Gonsolin coming off an 80-pitch relief outing in the game in which Dustin May was forced out by a comebacker off the left foot). If May’s foot has healed sufficiently (his CT scan was negative), he’ll likely start on Wednesday having thrown just 16 competitive pitches since September 4.
Here are those likely pitching matchups along with the game times:
Mon. 9/14, 6:10 p.m. PT: LHP Clayton Kershaw (1.98 ERA, 41 IP)* vs. RHP Dinelson Lamet (2.24 ERA, 52 1/3 IP)
Tues. 9/15, 6:10 p.m. PT: RHP Tony Gonsolin (1.57 ERA, 28 2/3 IP)* vs. RHP Zach Davies (2.48 ERA, 54 1/3 IP)
Wed. 9/16, 1:10 p.m. PT: RHP Dustin May (2.81 ERA, 41 2/3 IP)* vs. RHP Chris Paddack (4.74 ERA, 49 1/3 IP)*
*likely starters, not yet announced
That opening matchup is the highlight, with a pair of Cy Young contenders facing off in the 32-year-old lefty Kershaw and the 28-year-old righty Lamet. Lamet, who can hit triple digits with his fastball, is coming off his best and longest outing of the year. He struck out 11 Rockies without walking any over 7 2/3 scoreless innings his last time out, throwing a season-high 111 pitches, 66 of them sliders. Those extra two days of rest could thus prove to be key for him Monday night. In his only previous start against the Dodgers this season, on August 4, Lamet took a no-hitter two outs into the sixth inning then coughed up two runs and got the hook. He struck out just two Dodgers in that game, but also allowed just two hits, both singles. Joc Pederson hit two homers in a game against Lamet last September but went 0-for-3 against him on August 4.
Zach Davies is having something of a career year in his first year in San Diego, if any player can be said to be having a career year in this abbreviated season. Acquired with Trent Grisham in a four-player trade in November, Davies has yet to allow more than three runs or throw fewer than five innings in any of his nine starts this season. The soft-tossing lefty held the Dodgers to two runs over seven innings on August 12, requiring just 87 pitches to do so, 42 of them changeups. The Dodger still won that game, as Gonsolin and five relievers combined to shutout the Padres, one of just two times this season that the Padres were shut out (the Dodgers are one of just three teams that have not been shutout this season, along with the Rangers and Red Sox). The active Dodger hitters (plus Justin Turner) have combined to hit just .198/.243/.317 in 109 career at-bats against Davies.
Like May, Paddack left his last start early due to an injury below the knee. In Paddack’s case, it was a sprained right ankle. The Padres haven’t announced their Wednesday starter, and it might not be Paddack, but he is not on the injured list, and it is his turn, so he remains the most likely man as of this writing. If it’s not Paddack, the Padres will have to go outside their rotation for a replacement. That could mean giving another chance to Joey Lucchesi, who opened the year in the rotation, but failed to complete the fourth inning in either of his first two starts and was sent to the alternate training site when rosters shrunk to 28 men. The Padres recalled Lucchesi as the extra arm for Sunday’s double header, but sent him back to the alternate training site Monday morning. San Diego could also give Wednesday’s start to 21-year-old Cuban rookie Adrián Morejón, who started his 2020 season with a couple of abbreviated starts in mid-August (one good one bad), and has since thrown six scoreless innings out of the bullpen, striking out seven against no walks. Lucchesi and Morejón are both lefties, which would make them good foes for the Dodgers, who, if they can be said to have struggled at all this season, have done so against left-handed pitching.
As for the Padres’ offense, which leads the majors in OPS+ and trails only the Braves (who cheated with a 29-run outburst last week) in runs per game, this is how San Diego will likely line up against rookie righties Gonsolin and May on Tuesday and Wednesday:
L – Trent Grisham (CF)
R – Fernando Tatis Jr. (SS)
R – Manny Machado (3B)
L – Mitch Moreland (1B)
R – Austin Nola (C)
R – Wil Myers (RF)
L – Jake Cronenworth (2B)
? – [bench] (DH)
S – Jurickson Profar (LF)
Note that, with Eric Hosmer likely out for the remainder of the regular season, and Tommy Pham still out following mid-August hamate surgery, the Padres do not have an everyday designated hitter. However, there is a chance that Pham could return to fill that hole during this series. If he does, he could hit as high as fourth in the lineup. Similarly, there’s a chance that Justin Turner (hamstring) could be activated during this series for the Dodgers.
Against the lefty Kershaw on Monday, Grisham will likely drop to ninth in the order, pushing everyone else up. Moreland and Cronenworth are significantly diminished against lefty pitching, as well, but, despite their deadline spree, the Padres don’t have any strong right-handed platoon options on the bench. Tingler’s only right-handed alternatives are rookies Jorge Mateo and Jorge Oña and veteran switch-hitter Abraham Almonte. Those three have hit a combined .132/.214/.263 on the season, albeit in a mere 43 plate appearances, most of them Mateo’s. He may opt to drop Moreland and Cronenworth in the order, as well, but he might prefer to keep his lefties spaced out against Kershaw.
Cliff Corcoran covers baseball for The Athletic and is a former lead baseball writer for SI.com. The co-author or editor of 13 baseball books, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he has also written for USA Today, SB Nation, Baseball Prospectus, Sports on Earth, The Hardball Times, and Boston.com, among others. He has been a semi-regular guest analyst on the MLB Network and can be heard more regularly on The Infinite Inning podcast with Steven Goldman. Follow Cliff on Twitter @CliffCorcoran.