SAN DIEGO -- As mid-April series go, this one is about as big as it gets.
After a winter's worth of back-and-forth, the Dodgers and Padres are slated to square off for the first time this weekend at Petco Park. It's a series that combines superstar players with National League West implications, plus plenty of legit animosity sprinkled in.
Ahead of Friday's series opener, here are seven noteworthy Dodgers-Padres storylines to watch:
1. NL West supremacy
Let's get the important one out of the way first. This series is legitimately impactful in the NL West standings. And while it's only April, the Padres and Dodgers were projected for the sport's two best records before the season began. Any chance they get to boost their own win total while putting a dent into their rival's -- that's an important series.
If these two teams end up being as good as we think they might be, their performance in the 19 games they play against each other might dictate the state of the NL West race.
2. Any carryover fireworks from 2020?
The Padres don't like the Dodgers. The Dodgers don't like the Padres. We're all better off for it. It's not often that two legitimate World Series contenders have this much beef.
Early last season, both teams took exception to plays at the plate that resulted in hard collisions with both catchers. The Dodgers were also none too pleased with Trent Grisham's theatrics after he took Clayton Kershaw deep in September. The L.A. dugout chirped at him as he rounded the bases, Grisham chirped back, then jumped emphatically on home plate.
The postseason ratcheted things up a notch, too, with Manny Machado flipping his bat, Brusdar Graterol flipping his hat, and Grisham flipping a baseball into the L.A. bullpen. The Dodgers had the last laugh, winning that series, then the World Series. But don’t think they’ve forgotten. Baseball players have notoriously long memories.
3. Guess who's back
The Padres activated Fernando Tatis Jr. from the injured list ahead of Friday's series opener -- after he spent the minimum of 10 days on the injured list with a partially separated left shoulder. Tatis struggled during the team's season-opening series against the D-backs, though it's unclear if his balky shoulder had anything to do with that. There's no soft landing for him either, considering the array of pitching talent on display for the Dodgers this weekend.
The most pressing issue regarding Tatis is his health. If he suffers another dislocation, it would raise serious questions about whether he’ll need surgery. (Cody Bellinger had surgery to address a similar issue during the offseason.) But right now, Tatis has the green light, and the Padres are expecting him to make an instant impact.
For the Dodgers, Graterol is a question mark. The team announced he would travel to San Diego and could be activated in one of the weekend's games. Plus, he already has history against the Padres. It was Graterol on the mound when Tatis hit what could've been a go-ahead homer in Game 2 of the NL Division Series last year, only for Bellinger to author a series-defining home-run robbery.
4. So. Many. Arms.
The probable pitching matchups this series are 🔥:
Friday: Walker Buehler vs. Ryan Weathers
Saturday: Clayton Kershaw vs. Yu Darvish
Sunday: Trevor Bauer vs. Blake Snell
That's a whole handful of perennial Cy Young Award candidates (plus Weathers, an intriguing 21-year-old rookie who has already been thrust into the spotlight during this rivalry, making his debut in the postseason last year).
Buehler (1.36 ERA) and Kershaw (2.03 ERA) have owned the Padres in the past -- though this is obviously a distinctly different Padres team. Saturday's matchup, in particular, is a fun one, given that Darvish and Kershaw were teammates and catch partners during the Dodgers' 2017 run to an NL pennant. On Monday, Darvish noted that he hasn't heard from Kershaw since he was traded to San Diego.
"The Padres and the Dodgers being rival teams -- that's the reason," Darvish said.
5. Snell gets the Dodgers … again
What happens if Rays manager Kevin Cash gives Snell a third trip through the Dodgers order in Game 6 of the World Series? Who the heck knows? But suffice it to say, Snell has been waiting for this rematch for a long time.
"I can't wait to play the Dodgers," Snell said during his first press conference with the Padres during Spring Training.
It's been a slow build-up for Snell this season, and he's coming off the second-shortest start of his career -- one in which he threw 38 pitches in the first inning against the Pirates.
"I'll figure it out," Snell said after that rocky start. "I know L.A. will watch this. So I'll figure out what I'll do next and get ready for them. I can't wait."
6. AL reunions
Machado is 10-for-17 with four homers and four walks in his career against Trevor Bauer. When Machado signed with the Padres in 2019, Bauer made a point to thank him in person. His exact words at the time:
"I'm so happy you're in the National League right now, you have no idea. My ERA just went down a full run."
So how does Bauer intend to keep his ERA down now that he shares a division with Machado?
"Just wait,” he quipped during Spring Training. "It’s going to be a fun year."
In a similar vein, Mookie Betts owns a .304 average and an .892 OPS against Snell, who said he thanked the Red Sox last season when they traded Betts to Los Angeles.
"I'm taking my 'thank you' back," Snell said.
7. A blossoming SoCal rivalry
There's a palpable buzz surrounding this series as perhaps the most highly anticipated regular-season series in Petco Park history. That buzz should make its way into the stands. Because of recent changes in state guidelines, Petco Park will be at 33 percent capacity -- with certain sections at 67 percent capacity for fans who are fully vaccinated or have received a negative COVID-19 test.
In years past, Dodgers fans have made the trek from L.A. and crammed their way into the East Village ballpark. But with the appetite for baseball at an all-time high in San Diego this year, it's worth wondering what the split between brown and blue will look like.
The Padres are distributing "Friar Sticks" for Friday's game (basically just Padres-themed thunder sticks). They'll have giveaways on Saturday and Sunday, too -- a hoodie on Saturday and their fabled Padres-and-puppies calendar on Sunday. Considering the organization's desire to pack as much brown into the ballpark as possible, it's not a coincidence those giveaways are taking place during games against the Dodgers.
"Oh, is that who we're playing this weekend?" team CEO Erik Greupner said with a wry grin on Thursday afternoon.
As if he didn't know. It's the series we've all been circling on our calendars all winter.