SAN DIEGO — The Padres are one win away from slaying that dragon up the freeway — and they might not even need to make a trip back up Interstate 5 to do it.
Petco Park’s first playoff game before fans in 16 years brought the goods. San Diego packed the place well before first pitch, gold towels waving and a cacophony of noise from the outset.
The Padres responded with an edge-of-your-seat 2-1 victory in Friday’s Game 3 against the Dodgers. They now lead the National League Division Series by that same total and can earn their first trip to the NL Championship Series since 1998 with a victory in Game 4 on Saturday night.
“We’re coming tomorrow,” Juan Soto said. “We’re not going to take it easy because we have the lead. We’ve got to get it done. A lot of people in this clubhouse, they’re hungry to go out there and beat those guys.”
“One win away,” said Padres third baseman Manny Machado. “But they’re a good ballclub over there. They’re going to bring it all tomorrow. We’ve just got to go out there and take care of our business. We’ve got big-game Joe on the mound.”
If Friday night was any indication, they’ll also have quite a home-field advantage. The 45,137 in attendance marked the largest crowd at Petco Park for a postseason game.
The Padres won two playoff games in the East Village amid the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. But they’d never won a playoff game before fans at Petco Park. Those fans were suitably rabid on Friday.
“It was probably the best crowd I’ve ever pitched in front of,” said Game 3 starter Blake Snell. “The energy was electric the entire time.”
Snell was making his first postseason start against the Dodgers since his infamous quick hook in Game 6 of the 2020 World Series. He was mostly sharp, allowing just one run over 5 1/3 innings. Snell struck out six and worked his way around plenty of traffic.
When Max Muncy doubled with one out in the sixth, Snell’s night was done, and he exited to a standing ovation. Unlike that start in Game 6 of the World Series, his bullpen finished the job. The San Diego relief corps continued its dominant run with 3 2/3 scoreless frames and has not allowed a Dodgers run in 12 2/3 innings this series.
“All those guys have been incredible,” Soto said. “I think this is one of the greatest bullpens I’ve ever seen. … They’re showing it off.”
With a bullpen like this one, the Padres feel awfully confident when they get an early lead. On Friday night, they jumped on top straightaway. Jake Cronenworth’s RBI single gave San Diego a 1-0 advantage in the first inning. Trent Grisham’s solo shot — his postseason-leading third home run — doubled that lead in the fourth. It proved decisive.
Grisham, who finished the regular season with the lowest batting average among all qualifiers, is in the midst of one of the best postseasons in Padres history. His three home runs are already one shy of Jim Leyritz’s franchise playoff record.
“I really just kind of feel like myself again,” Grisham said.
Half an inning later, the Dodgers scored their only run on Mookie Betts’ sacrifice fly. They threatened after that but would not score, finishing the night 0-for-9 with men in scoring position. With each escape act, Petco Park grew a bit more frenzied.
And when Josh Hader blew a 99 mph fastball past Trayce Thompson to end it, the place erupted.
“This crowd was unbelievable,” Machado said. “It was fun — a lot of years in waiting.”
Stunningly, the Padres find themselves in control of the NLDS. In the history of best-of-five postseason series, teams holding a 2-1 lead have gone on to win the series 67 of 93 times (72%). In Division Series with the current 2-2-1 format, teams up 2-1 and playing Game 4 in their home ballparks have advanced 21 of 26 times (81%). In 15 of those instances, the series has ended in Game 4.
If the Padres can finish it, they will have pulled off one of the sport’s truly monumental upsets. The Dodgers won 22 more games than the Padres during the regular season. No team has won a postseason series against a team as many games above them in the standings since the 1906 White Sox.
“It was a very good regular season, but as we said before, none of that matters,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “We’re in a five-game series against a very good ballclub that we’re familiar with, and the team that plays the best baseball is going to win the series.
“Up to this point, they’ve played better than we have.”
It’s a stark reversal from the regular season — and, really, the past decade. The Dodgers won all six previous series this year. They’ve finished ahead of San Diego in the standings in every season since 2010. At the Trade Deadline, the Padres overhauled their roster with precisely this series in mind; they needed to overtake their rivals at some point.
It was then that chairman Peter Seidler proclaimed that the Dodgers were “the dragon up the freeway we’re trying to slay.”
And here they sit, one win away from slaying it.