NLCS-bound Padres find their identity, eliminate Dodgers

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San Diego Padres pitcher Blake Snell runs with a goose decoy after the Padres defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers 5-3 in Game 4 of a baseball NL Division Series, Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

SAN DIEGO – As a rare October rainstorm drenched Petco Park in the eighth inning, nobody at the packed downtown home of the San Diego Padres flinched.

Fans pulled over hoodies, put on ponchos and covered their heads with whatever they could to try to stay dry, including yellow rally towels and pizza boxes.

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They’d suffered through too many seasons of watching mostly dreadful baseball and weren’t going to miss the chance to chant “Beat LA!" with gusto and boo Cody Bellinger one final time as the Padres stood on the cusp of eliminating their reviled rivals, the 111-win Los Angeles Dodgers.

After the Padres took the lead with a stunning five-run rally in the seventh that literally made the ballpark shake, reliever Robert Suarez methodically retired Trayce Thompson, Bellinger and Gavin Lux. The 31-year-old rookie, who was lights-out in the division series, showed no emotion until blowing strike three past Lux and then pounding his right fist into his glove several times as he headed to the dugout and the crowd roared.

An inning later, with his long hair flowing out from under his hat, All-Star closer Josh Hader struck out Mookie Betts, Trea Turner and Freddie Freeman in succession to spark one of the biggest parties downtown San Diego has ever seen.

“This is what the city’s been waiting for for a long time,” bare-chested Manny Machado said in the mayhem of the clubhouse celebration after the Padres beat the Dodgers 5-3 Saturday night to reach the NL Championship Series for the first time since 1998.

The Padres won three straight games against the Dodgers to clinch the division series 3-1 and will host Bryce Harper and the Philadelphia Phillies in an all-wild card NLCS beginning Tuesday night.

The best-of-seven matchup features a fun twist, too — Phillies ace Aaron Nola facing his older brother, Padres catcher Austin Nola.

Two members of the 1998 Padres team, Hall of Fame closer Trevor Hoffman and Steve Finley, watched from a luxury suite Saturday night and gleefully bumped fists after Jake Cronenworth gave the Padres a 5-3 lead with a two-run single in the seventh.

As much as Saturday night was about rewarding the long-suffering fans who have never celebrated a World Series championship, it was also about a Padres team that played in the exhaust fumes of the mighty Dodgers almost all season before finding their identity at the right time.

The players let loose, too. Cronenworth, an All-Star second baseman who struggled offensively during the regular season, raised his arms as he rounded first on his go-ahead single and then punched the air and hollered as he pulled into second base on the throw home.

Machado and Juan Soto, acquired from Washington in a trade deadline blockbuster, exhorted the fans to cheer louder during the on-field post-game celebration. Blake Snell ran around the infield with a plastic goose and dropped it near home plate. The Padres had two plastic “rally geese” in their dugout in Games 3 and 4 after a real goose landed on the field at Dodger Stadium late in the their 5-3 win in Game 2 Wednesday night.

Machado, the $300 million All-Star third baseman and unquestioned team leader, carried the Padres all year in the absence of electrifying shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. Tatis was on the cusp of returning from wrist surgery when he was suspended 80 games by MLB after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug.

General manager A.J. Preller pulled two major trades, acquiring Hader from Milwaukee on Aug. 1 and the next day landing Soto and Josh Bell in a blockbuster deal with Washington. Neither trade helped the Padres close the double-digit deficit to the Dodgers in the NL West standings. Hader was even pulled from his closer role for a while after struggling with his new team.

But Hader regained his groove and had three straight saves in the NLDS as he, Suarez and Luis Garcia shut down the Dodgers.

“Insane,” Hader said about getting the last out. “I think I blacked out. But it was amazing.”

On his first day in a Padres uniform, just after the Soto trade was made official, Hader said he sensed “a contagious atmosphere” that the Padres not only wanted to reach the playoffs but win the World Series.

“I knew what we had coming over here,” said Hader, who was soaked with beer as midnight approached on Saturday. “I knew this team was stacked. This team was full of studs. It’s just taken the time to get hot at the right time and that’s what we’re doing. We’re not done yet. We’ve got a lot to do, but to be able to roll into this, beat LA, it’s huge.”

Right-hander Joe Musgrove grew up a Padres fan in suburban El Cajon and celebrated Saturday night with his own No-No Joe Double IPA, which was launched by a local microbrewery after he threw the first no-hitter in franchise history, in just his second start with his hometown team on April 9, 2021.

“Our fans have been waiting for so long and I used to be that fan that was waiting,” said Musgrove, who got a no-decision Saturday night, six days after his brilliant performance that clinched a wild-card series win against the New York Mets.

The Dodgers had beaten the Padres in nine straight series dating to 2021. But the Padres won the series that mattered most.

“I know the job’s not done. We’ve got a lot of baseball ahead of us still, but this is something that needs to be celebrated,” Musgrove said. “Those guys handed it to us all year long and when it came down to it and we needed to win ballgames we found ways to do it.”


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