Darvish gambit gets Padres no closer to Wild Card spot

October 1st, 2022

SAN DIEGO -- In a deep San Diego rotation,  has emerged as the Padres’ ace this season, owner of a 3.10 ERA, in the midst of his best season in years -- maybe ever. Even when he’s not at his dominant best, Darvish almost always gives the Padres a chance to win, and he did that again on Friday night, notching his 23rd consecutive start of at least six innings.

The next time Darvish takes the mound, it will mark his most important start as a Padre to date. The calendar has flipped to October. That start will take place amid one of two settings: Darvish would either be lined up to start Game 1 of a Wild Card Series. Or he would start Game 162, the final game of the regular season, with a spot in the playoffs on the line.

The Padres would desperately prefer the former.

Their recent performance -- including a 3-1 loss to the White Sox on Friday in which they again struggled to score at Petco Park -- has them uncomfortably close to the latter.

“We’ve got to pull out some wins here, for sure,” said first baseman , who had two hits and was OK after taking a fastball off the bill of his helmet. “It sits in our hands. We do what we do and take care of business. It’s in our hands to get to the playoffs.”

The Padres got no closer to that goal on Friday night. The Brewers and Phillies both won, meaning San Diego’s magic number for a Wild Card spot, agonizingly, is still 3. Here’s a look at the current playoff picture:

Magic number: 3 (for a postseason berth)
Standings update: 86-71 (second for NL Wild Card)
Games remaining: 5 (2 vs. White Sox, 3 vs. Giants)
NL Wild Card: The Padres lead the Phillies by 1 1/2 games for the second Wild Card spot and
Milwaukee by two games for the final postseason place
Tiebreakers: The Padres own the tiebreaker over Milwaukee; the Phillies own the tiebreaker over the Padres; in the event of a three-way tie, the Phillies and Padres would reach the playoffs, with the Phillies seeded ahead of the Padres

Earlier this week, the Padres held a four-game advantage over Milwaukee -- and the tiebreaker -- with eight games to play. Their spot in the postseason felt close to a formality.

It was then that the team decided to push Darvish’s start to Friday night, even though he could’ve started Thursday on normal rest. It was a risk, sure. By pushing Darvish to Friday, that lined him up for a potential Game 162. And if he were needed for that game, he’d be unavailable for a Wild Card Series on normal rest.

“I’m looking at the last game of the season,” said Darvish, who allowed three runs over six innings while striking out six. “If we don’t clinch … that’s going to be the biggest game for us. I can’t look ahead from there. For me, it’s about Game 162.”

That was the gamble. Darvish would get an extra day of rest and would be lined up nicely for the postseason. His matchup was, in theory, more favorable than facing the Dodgers. On top of all that, the Padres had built a comfortable cushion.

Only it doesn’t feel so comfortable anymore, does it? Not with the Padres having lost three straight, sucked back into the muck and mire of a National League Wild Card race they just can’t seem to escape.

“Nothing’s been easy for us this year,” said manager Bob Melvin. “It continues to be that way. But, look, there’s five games left right now. Everything’s on the table.”

The Padres had their share of chances on Friday. They trailed by a run in the bottom of the fifth inning when lined a double into the right-field corner. But was thrown out at the plate after an aggressive send by third-base coach Matt Williams with  on deck. 

Melvin said he was OK with Williams’ decision, noting, “We’re not scoring runs right now, so we’re trying to push a run across.”

Two innings later, Soto came a few feet from his first dramatic Padres moment. His would-be go-ahead three-run homer hooked just foul down the left-field line.

“When I hit, I knew I got it,” Soto said. “I knew it was going to be a homer or it was going to be a foul ball. … When it started coming down, it was still fair, so I was thinking it was gone. Just in the last moment, it went [foul].”

Two pitches later, Soto struck out, ending the threat. After the game, Soto was resolute.

“Right now, we’re in,” Soto said. “There’s no pressure at all. We’ve just got to stay there, just maintain the spot that we have.”

As the past three days would indicate, that’s easier said than done.