It was David vs. Goliath. Little bro vs. big bro. But when the San Diego Padres upset the mighty Los Angeles Dodgers, the Friars were no longer forced to say, “who’s my daddy?” Now, Bob Melvin‘s scrappy group will take on another Cinderella club, the Philadelphia Phillies, with the winner headed to the 2022 World Series.
Not since 1998 had San Diego advanced this deep into the playoffs, and the city has been in a non-stop frenzy. Nearly three million people attended games at Petco Park this season, second only to the New York Yankees. Add that to the Padres recent success and the spike of faithful fans has been unprecedented. Patrons at the restaurants and bars in the historic Gaslamp District downtown have spilled onto the sidewalks. Merchandise sales have been through the roof, with the sellout crowds at Petco clad in a sea of brown and gold.
A fifth seed in the new wild card format, the visiting Padres first task was to upset the New York Mets, a team that won a 101 games during the regular season only to be edged out by the Atlanta Braves. San Diego’s reward for that accomplishment was to face the Dodgers in a best of five series, with the first two games to be played at the Chavez Ravine lion’s den. Los Angeles had dominated the Padres in the NL West in route 111 victories, winning the division by over 20 games. But when San Diego managed a split at Dodger Stadium, even surviving the curse of a wild goose that landed in right field during a tense moment in game two, the momentum shifted in the Padres direction.
The Friars offense has sputtered in a mediocre fashion for most of the season, with veteran third baseman Manny Machado carrying the team on his back. That’s why General Manager A.J. Preller pulled the trigger on blockbuster trades to acquire Juan Soto, Josh Bell and Brandon Drury. Unfortunately, the trio has basically underperformed until Soto’s sharp double ignited a key rally in game five. Much more spectacular was the pitching rotation of Yu Darvich, Blake Snell and local hero Joe Musgrove, who recorded the first no-hit game in Padre history this season. The bullpen has also been clutch, especially in the post season with the addition of Josh Hader in another Preller swap. Probably the biggest surprise however, has been the emergence of Hader’s setup man, Robert Suarez.
A 31 year old MLB rookie, Suarez was playing semi-pro ball and doing construction work in Venezuela when he signed to pitch for Saltillo in the AAA Mexican League in 2015. He performed well enough to ink a contract in Japan and later play for his home country in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. That’s when Suarez blew out his right elbow and had Tommy John surgery. He struggled in a return to Japan until 2020 when he caught the eye of a Padre scout, and was brought along slowly in the minor leagues before making the varsity last spring. But the season has been a bonanza for Suarez, especially in the playoffs where he hasn’t allowed a run in seven outings with 12 strikeouts, featuring three pitches including a 102mpr fastball.
So now we have two teams that were the least likely to advance, the underdog Padres and Phillies, playing for all the marbles. Both clubs are hungry and on a roll, and neither bunch seems intimated when playing from behind. Philadelphia could have an advantage in the catching department with all-star receiver J.T. Realmuto. He has excellent power at the plate, and behind it has thrown out more runners than anybody in the big leagues, at least percentage-wise. San Diego’s strength, as mentioned, is that nasty pen and skipper Melvin is not afraid to use it.
I won $20 on a bet with a friend who thought the Mets would prevail in that New York series. But even though I used to work for the Padres, I’m not about to wager a dime on who will win the NLCS. The only thing I’m predicting is that it will likely be a seven game dog fight.