Darvish delivers 8 scoreless to keep WC race unchanged

September 14th, 2022

SEATTLE -- The National League Wild Card race is tightening. The schedule is getting tougher. Right now, every game feels like it might be the one that makes or breaks the Padres' season.

And the bigger the moment, the better seems to get.

When the Padres needed him most, Darvish was at his absolute dominant best in a tense 2-0 victory over the Mariners at T-Mobile Park on Tuesday night. Darvish pitched eight scoreless innings on just 94 pitches – perhaps the finest outing in what’s been a renaissance season for the veteran right-hander.

“Yeah, this game was a gem,” said Padres catcher . “I mean, every pitch was working.”

Did the Padres ever need it, too. Both the Phillies and Brewers won Tuesday night, meaning the Wild Card standings remain unchanged from where they were entering play. San Diego leads Milwaukee by two games in the race for the final playoff spot, and it trails Philadelphia by 1 1/2 games for the second Wild Card.

The Padres got on the board in the top of the fourth inning, when rattled an RBI double into the left-field corner. From there, the two teams traded zeros until the ninth. Darvish, in fact, never allowed a Mariner to reach second base. He struck out seven and allowed just two hits.

“No room for error, it felt like, the entire game,” Melvin said. “Just another ho-hum Yu Darvish outing.”

Indeed, Darvish’s consistency is perhaps his most remarkable attribute. His start Tuesday marked his 20th consecutive outing of at least six innings. He’s just the fourth pitcher in Padres history to achieve a streak that long. The fact that he did so in 2022 -- in an era of bullpen optimization and limited pitch counts -- makes it all the more impressive.

Then again, Darvish finishing the sixth was perhaps the least surprising thing that happened all night. More surprising, perhaps, was the fact that he didn’t get the ninth, sitting at just 94 pitches. As he walked off the field after a 1-2-3 eighth, Darvish said he felt it was a 50/50 proposition.

“I was OK with the decision,” Darvish said. “The number of pitches was something like 94. We’re deep into September. When [Melvin] said that, I understood.”

Melvin called on closer , whose struggles early in his Padres tenure were especially pronounced. But lately, Hader has shown signs of a turnaround. 

“You’ve got Josh Hader as your closer,” Melvin said. “We brought him in here to do those things. It was a difficult decision, but one that I felt like I had to make.”

Melvin’s faith was rewarded. The Padres tacked on an insurance run before Hader took the mound in the bottom of the ninth. Then Hader was perhaps as dominant as has been since he was traded to the Padres, striking out three while inducing five swings and misses.

The last of those swings and misses had the Padres’ clubhouse buzzing afterward. Hader allowed a seeing-eye single to Julio Rodríguez, bringing Ty France to the plate as the tying run. France, the former Padre, battled for 10 high-drama pitches. He fouled off fastballs. He laid off sliders.

“What else was there left?” Nola said.

That’s when Nola called for a rare Hader changeup -- a pitch he throws only 2.1% of the time, according to Statcast. Hader executed it beautifully, on the outside corner. France was out in front and swung through it.

“That was a heck of an at-bat,” said Nola, who was dealt to San Diego in return for France as part of that seven-player blockbuster two years ago. “He was adjusting to all fastballs, taking the sliders, fouling off that slider. What an at-bat. There was nothing else [but the changeup].”

It was a fittingly dramatic conclusion for a game as tense as the Padres have played all season. Runs were at a premium from the outset. Both teams tried to play small ball. The Seattle crowd was energized from the start.

“It’s the way playoff games feel,” said Melvin. “And every game that Seattle’s playing is a playoff game, as well. When you come down to the end of the season, and there’s 20 games left, you know exactly where you stand.”

Twenty games left. The Padres are going back to a five-man rotation. Here’s some quick math, based on those facts:

If the Padres stay on-turn in their starting rotation, Darvish would be slated to pitch Wednesday, Oct. 5, the final game on the schedule. In other words, he might be on the mound, with the season on the line. Or, say the Padres have already secured their postseason place. They could just as easily move him back two days for the start of a Wild Card series.

Yu Darvish, Game 1 starter? After a night like this one, the Padres have to like the sound of that.