King clutch: Alfaro's 5th(!) walk-off pushes Padres closer to WC clinch

September 28th, 2022

SAN DIEGO – This time, Jorge Alfaro didn’t even have to swing.

The Padres’ walk-off king simply watched Craig Kimbrel’s 3-2 fastball tail several inches off the outside corner of the plate. He turned to the home dugout in stunned disbelief. Sure, Alfaro had already set a franchise record with four walk-off plate appearances in a single season. But, well, the “walking” part is not exactly Alfaro’s specialty.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Alfaro said. “I walked to finish a game. … It’s not a secret: I don’t walk that much.”

In a way, this was the unlikeliest walk-off to date. The free-swinging Alfaro entered play Tuesday with just a 4.2 percent career walk rate. But his 10th-inning base on balls capped the Padres’ dramatic 4-3 victory over the Dodgers, inching them ever closer to a Wild Card berth.

“The only surprise is him literally walking, to walk it off,” said manager Bob Melvin.

The Padres, it would seem, do not want to back their way into the postseason. There are still two playoff spots up for grabs in the National League -- and Alfaro and Co. seem hellbent on seizing one of them as soon as possible.

While the teams around them in the Wild Card race have faltered, the Padres have now won eight of 10, moving them 18 games above .500 for the first time since the final day of the 2010 season. 

With Tuesday’s win -- and losses by both Philadelphia and Milwaukee -- they sit 2 1/2 games up on the Phillies for the second Wild Card spot and, more importantly, four games ahead of the Brewers for the final place in the postseason. With eight games to play, the Padres also own the tiebreaker over Milwaukee.

As such, the magic number is down to four – meaning any combination of Padres wins and Brewers losses totaling four would see San Diego secure its first trip to the postseason in a full 162-game season since 2006.

“It’s been for a while now where we’ve controlled our own destiny,” Melvin said afterward. “All we’ve got to do is win some games. And that’s the way it continues to be. That’s the way it will [be] until, hopefully, we get into the postseason.”

The Padres can clinch their place as soon as Thursday.

“The other teams are going to do what they’re going to do,” said Padres second baseman Jake Cronenworth. “We’ve just got to keep playing good baseball – keep playing the way we’re playing right now.”

Left-hander Blake Snell pitched scoreless, one-hit ball and was mostly sharp, but he needed 96 pitches to do so, giving way to the bullpen after five innings. The Dodgers tied the game in the sixth with a couple runs off Nick Martinez, setting the stage for a wild finish.

The Padres took a one-run lead in the eighth, capitalizing on a pair of Dodgers misplays. They gave it right back in the top of the ninth with Josh Hader on the mound. Ha-Seong Kim booted a routine ground ball, allowing the tying run to reach third base, before Alfaro’s passed ball saw the game tied.

Alfaro had entered at the start of the ninth, after Melvin opted to pinch-run for starting catcher Austin Nola in the bottom of the eighth. It wouldn’t take long for Alfaro to atone for his mistake. Kim started the 10th by bunting the automatic runner to third base, and the Dodgers opted to intentionally walk Juan Soto. After Kimbrel punched out Manny Machado, he walked Brandon Drury, loading the bases.

“I’m trying to find a good pitch,” Alfaro said. “He didn’t give me anything in the zone.”

Soon enough, the Padres had their 12th walk-off victory of the season, the most in the National League. Alfaro, of course, has five of those. He joined Jorge Polanco -- who did so for Minnesota last season -- as the only players since 2009 with five walk-offs in a single season.

“Everybody feels good when he’s up there,” Melvin said. “I wouldn’t have called the walk walk-off. But to be able to calm yourself down, not having too many at-bats here recently, and actually draw a walk in that situation shows that he’s been through it before, and he’s got a lot of confidence.”

Indeed, Alfaro’s playing time has dried up lately. For much of the season, he split time relatively evenly with Nola. But Alfaro has battled knee trouble in the second half, and he’s mostly struggled.

Then again, with the game on the line, there’s no one the Padres would rather have at the plate.

“He doesn’t give into the situation, doesn’t put too much pressure on himself,” Cronenworth said. “It seems like those five at-bats have been his best at-bats of the year. It’s pretty crazy to watch.”