SAN DIEGO -- It was the type of moment Petco Park had been waiting on for ages.
Padres third baseman Manny Machado snared an Albert Pujols line drive, then fired an off-balance strike to second base to secure the Padres' first sweep of the Dodgers in eight years. Packed to full capacity, the ballpark erupted, embracing a team with serious World Series ambitions for the first time in perhaps decades.
Hard to believe that was only two months ago.
Two months -- that’s how long it would be before the Padres played another game against the Dodgers or Giants. They had two months to position themselves as best they could for a stretch run in which they’d face their two primary rivals 19 times in the final six weeks.
Those two months have been disastrous. Rather than competing for an NL West title, the Padres find themselves struggling to remain afloat in the Wild Card race, trailing the Reds by a game as they welcome the Dodgers on Tuesday night.
"Everyone realizes where we're at, the race that we're fighting for," said Padres right-hander Joe Musgrove. "The division might be a little bit out of sight now. It would take a lot to get there. But we just want to get a spot in the playoffs, then we think we've got a chance."
It's an honest assessment. But how did the Padres get here?
A Deadline ultimatum
As they teetered at the fringe of the West race in late July, one fact became clear: The Padres needed starting pitching. Their bullpen was chewing up more innings than any relief corps in baseball, and -- coming off a 60-game season in 2020 -- the depth was being tested.
General manager A.J. Preller set his sights high, targeting the Nationals' Max Scherzer. The Padres put forth an offer that they felt was more than reasonable. Some in the organization, acknowledging their subjectivity, still say their offer was the best one.
On July 29, Musgrove took the mound believing reports that the Padres were poised to land Scherzer. It wasn't until after the game that he learned Scherzer was headed to L.A. Musgrove didn't bat an eye, noting that Preller almost certainly had something "up his sleeve."
Up Preller's sleeve were a plethora of trade possibilities, a deal for the Twins' José Berríos chief among them. But Minnesota was offered a pair of top 100 prospects the following morning, a price Preller wasn't willing to pay, and Berríos went to the Blue Jays instead.
Left scrambling, it became clear that Berríos' price tag wasn't the only hefty one. To land Kyle Gibson from the Rangers, the Phillies relinquished touted prospect Spencer Howard.
The Padres needed starting pitching. But their rivals also knew just how badly the Padres needed starting pitching. So Preller took a stunning gamble: He didn't trade for starting pitching.
It wasn't necessarily a doomed strategy from the start. But the Padres didn't have any wiggle room. They needed to avoid injuries, and they needed youngsters like Ryan Weathers to step up.
A rotation in freefall
It didn't take long for that plan to unravel. Not even three hours after the Deadline, right-hander Chris Paddack felt something in his left side during a bullpen session. He was diagnosed with a left oblique strain and hasn't pitched since.
Weathers took the mound that night and allowed eight runs in four innings, the first in a stretch of five post-Deadline outings in which he has recorded an ugly 14.26 ERA.
Yu Darvish landed on the injured list too, and the Padres' pre-Deadline pitching plans were torn asunder. They took to multiple bullpen days per week around Musgrove, Blake Snell and Weathers. They signed the slumping Jake Arrieta (who tweaked his hamstring in his first start). It all took a toll on a bullpen that entered August with a Major League-leading 2.94 ERA but has posted a 4.07 mark since.
"With the guys we have injured, this is how it’s got to be," said right-hander Craig Stammen, who served as opener for three of those bullpen days. "We've got to figure it out and piece it together. ... But there's just something about knowing who the starting pitcher is going to be the next day."
As for the hope that the Padres' offense could carry the load, it simply hasn't come to fruition. San Diego hitters have a middling 96 wRC+ since the Trade Deadline. The result: These Padres constantly find themselves playing from behind, which has only served to heighten the frustration internally. In six games last week, the Padres played 55 innings. They trailed after 46 of them and led after four.
On Monday, Larry Rothschild was dismissed as pitching coach, the culmination of an 11-game stretch in which the Padres posted a 6.20 ERA and went 2-9. Bullpen coach Ben Fritz was promoted to take Rothschild’s place.
"Larry is definitely not a scapegoat in this," manager Jayce Tingler said. "Me, as the manager, ultimately I'm responsible for the staff. I’m responsible for our performance and getting our players to play to their abilities."
‘A 36-game sprint’
Of course, that brings up the question of what happens to Tingler if the Padres don't play to their abilities, if they miss out on a playoff spot to a Reds team they've beaten six of seven times and led by 6 1/2 games late last month. That’s a topic for another day.
"It's not too late to play really good baseball and to stay in the fight and have an opportunity to get into the playoffs," Tingler said. "We have the guys to do it. We have a 36-game sprint."
The reality is: The Padres have been waiting for this 36-game sprint since that series against the Dodgers in late June. They'd prefer not to be in this predicament entering it. But they've risen to the occasion before.
"I think against teams like the Dodgers and Giants, you're going to see some better baseball out of us," Musgrove said. "The situation we're in, the atmosphere it provides, you're going to see a higher level of intensity."
The Padres went 17-18 against the Rockies and D-backs this year, two teams a combined 51 games below .500. Ultimately, that cost them a shot at the NL West. But they're 11-8 against the Giants and Dodgers, the teams they'll play more than anyone else down the stretch.
Plus, there are finally answers on the horizon. Darvish is expected to face the Dodgers this week. Paddack could return on the team’s road trip through Anaheim and Arizona. Those two will join a rotation that has seen Snell bounce back, while Musgrove has continued to thrive.
Just in time for what figures to be the most pivotal stretch of Padres baseball since at least 2010 -- and perhaps longer, considering the unquestionably high ceiling of this particular group.
"We're going to be playing in meaningful games for the rest of the season," Snell said. "It's a really good opportunity for us to get out of this funk we're in, to go on a winning streak and start dominating. Like we know we should be.”