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Column: Dodgers, Giants remind Padres how far they are from baseball's October standard

San Diego Union-Tribune
San Diego Union-Tribune
 2021-10-16
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The Dodgers celebrate eliminating the Giants during Game 5 of the National League Division Series on Thursday in San Francisco. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

The Dodgers and Giants showed the Padres what playoff-caliber baseball looks like, what it sounds like, what it smells like, what it tastes like. Most importantly, they showed what it takes.

This was Ali and Frazier thrilling in Manila, uppercut for uppercut. The National League Division Series resembled a back-alley fight more than the staid, slow game too often bogged down by strikeouts.

A 162-game season begged for more — and got it. The first four games of the NLDS could not decide things. Neither could the first 53 outs of the Game 5 decider. It literally came down to the final, contested non-swing.

After the win-or-vacation matchup, the Dodgers had piled up 110 victories, the Giants 109. They played 24 times with each winning 12. This was scratch-and-claw baseball, never-quit baseball, rise-to-the-occasion baseball. Script-changers popped up like dandelions after a spring shower.

How far are the current Padres from that type of sustained performance, relentlessness and grit? Squint your eyes at a distant horizon. That far. Possibly more.

The Dodgers climbed over the Giants with never-ending depth, despite the departures of playoff juggernauts Kiké Hernandez, Joc Pederson and Alex Verdugo.

And the Dodgers won anyway.

Pocketbooks matter, without a doubt. Scooping up starting pitcher Max Scherzer and speedy ex-Padres infielder Trea Turner after an embarrassing, expensive misfire on Trevor Bauer is out of reach for most. Then again, the Padres invested record payroll while tap dancing around the edges of the luxury tax and failed to finish north of .500 in the standings.

The Padres experienced injuries galore, but so did the Dodgers and Giants . The duo found ways to not just survive but thrive, as San Diego faded away in what had been trumpeted as a statement season.

Start with competitive mindsets, sharpened to a razor’s edge.

“It’s two teams that don’t like each other, but respect the hell out of each other,” Scherzer said. “At the end of the year, we thought we had ’em, but they would not lose. They. Would. Not. Lose. So we couldn’t, either.”

That’s what the Padres lacked, in bushel loads.

When the winnable sweet spot on the schedule arrived, they lost to the Diamondbacks and Rockies. When a critical series in St. Louis placed controllable destiny on a silver plate, they wilted.

Watching the Dodgers and Giants slug it out only made Padres fans feel worse about the free fall of 2021. It was obvious, on a nightly basis, how far their team found itself from that type of dramatic and determined baseball.

They watched a young pitcher rise up, as Giants’ 24-year-old Logan Webb went toe-to-rubber with established stars like Walker Buehler, Julio Urias and Scherzer. They saw veterans like Brandon Crawford find an extra gear, leaping to rob Mookie Betts of a late run or two in Game 3 — a 1-0 gem.

The Dodgers did not shrink in the face of it all, because they almost never do.

Former MVP Cody Bellinger rose from baseball’s ashes to drive in the run that won the series. Betts kept earning his massive paycheck, with bat and arm alike. The positional pieces polished the edges. A Will Smith homer here. Plug-and-play outfielder Chris Taylor at the windy wall there.

Threats and matchup migraines in every direction.

Who are those players for the Padres? Who do you believe would rise up in those types of moments? Fernando Tatis Jr? Sure. Manny Machado? More times than most realize. Jake Cronenworth? Joe Musgrove? You’d roll those dice every night.

Beyond those players, the pauses provide uncomfortable answers.

The run in 2020 seemed like a preview of what the Padres were capable of doing and sustaining. Sixty games offers a mere glimpse, we learned. Excelling in October demands being prepared for the preceding marathon, not a 10K.

“It took everything we had to beat these guys,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said.

That’s the extra gear, the extra heartbeat or whatever you want to call it.

Almost inexplicably, the bar to compete in the NL West has been raised. The leaders are not coming back to the pack. In 2021, 105 wins would have earned the Padres a single wild-card playoff game.

The Padres are scrambling to close a gulf they never imagined could seem so wide. The fired a manager, a pitching coach and leadership of the farm system and player development groups.

The most difficult and pressing question linger, still: Are there enough players on the roster capable of playing with the Dodgers and Giants of 2021? You can update the paint job on a Corvette, but you’re going nowhere if the engine seizes.

One is cosmetic. The other, critical.

If anyone forgot, the Dodgers and Giants provided a sobering reminder.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune .

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