'Great year for us': Padres fall short in NLCS

October 24th, 2022

PHILADELPHIA -- Say this about the 2022 Padres: They went for it. They made perhaps the biggest Trade Deadline splash in the sport's history. They slayed some dragons in October, beating the 101-win Mets, then upsetting the rival Dodgers. They advanced further than all but two teams in the franchise’s history.

But, ultimately, on a drama-filled, rain-soaked afternoon in South Philadelphia, they came up short. And the enduring image from their 2022 finale will be this: Bryce Harper swatting a go-ahead two-run home run in the bottom of the eighth inning, while Josh Hader watched from the right-center-field bullpen.

Harper’s two-run shot off setup man Robert Suarez was the difference in San Diego’s 4-3 loss to Philadelphia in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series on Sunday at Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies are headed to the World Series. The Padres are headed home.

“We fought our best fight, and it wasn’t enough,” said Padres right-hander Joe Musgrove. “It’s not so much the fact that we lost and we’re going home as much as it is that no one’s ready to go home.”

Indeed, it was a stunning and sudden end to a season that featured too many ups and downs to count. On the first day of Spring Training, the Padres learned they’d be without superstar shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr., who had fractured his left wrist. They persevered through injuries and an early-season dearth of offense. They overhauled their roster at the Trade Deadline, then learned they’d be without Tatis for the remainder of the season when he received an 80-game PED suspension in mid-August. The Padres persevered again.

They reached the postseason for the seventh time in franchise history. Once there, they upset the Mets in New York, setting up a showdown with the rival Dodgers, a 111-win juggernaut, in the NL Division Series. The Padres won that, too, a series that will live in the hearts of San Diegans for a long, long time, despite how the season ended.

“I wouldn’t ask for any better group to go to war with every single day,” said Padres third baseman Manny Machado. “We did a hell of a job all year. We accomplished a lot of things. People didn’t expect us to be here, but here we were.

“Obviously we lost. But we were in the Championship Series and fighting for a pennant. Overall, it was a great year for us.”

The Phillies, and their relentless lineup, proved too tough a challenge. Their offense was a buzz saw. The way Harper, Rhys Hoskins and Kyle Schwarber swung the bat this weekend, it’s no certainty that anyone could have pitched the Padres back to Game 6 in San Diego.

But there’s still plenty of time to ponder the “what-ifs.” And there are quite a few. The biggest will be Hader watching from the bullpen while manager Bob Melvin stuck with the righty Suarez against the lefty-hitting Harper. The Padres led by a run, and the Phillies had their leadoff man aboard.

“I don’t make the calls on that, right?” Hader said. “We have our best pitcher out there, too. He’s been our guy the entire year. So obviously, in hindsight you can say, ‘Oh, it would’ve been nice to go matchup on matchup,’ but he’s a dawg out there. He’s a guy we count on, day in, day out. I don’t think it was the wrong decision.”

Still, a loss like this one will be especially tough to swallow, considering the Padres didn’t use Hader -- by far their best reliever this postseason -- in an elimination game. In fact, they didn’t use Hader in any of the final three games.

Afterward, Melvin said he preferred the matchup with Suarez against Harper. Suarez had been excellent against left-handed hitters all season and hadn’t allowed a single home run. Never mind that Hader had been acquired for precisely this type of moment -- a big at-bat against the sport’s hottest hitter with the Padres’ season on the line. Melvin noted that Hader wasn’t even fully warmed up by the time J.T. Realmuto led off the bottom of the eighth with a single.

“That wasn't what we were thinking,” Melvin said. “We were trying to get to a four-out [save] position for Hader, and we had a lot of confidence in Suarez [against Harper].”

Said Phillies manager Rob Thomson: “Yeah, I was a little bit [surprised], but I don’t question other guys.”

Harper worked quite an at-bat. He fell behind 1-2, then Suarez threw a changeup -- his go-to out pitch -- executed perfectly just below the strike zone. Harper spit on it.

“Unbelievable take," said Padres catcher Austin Nola. "Unbelievable take. That's the pitch he swings at. The fact he [was patient] and took it -- that's Suarez's best pitch. Hands down.”

The next pitch was the one they’ll remember for years, maybe decades, in Philadelphia. Suarez’s fastball caught too much of the outer half of the plate. Harper, who later won NLCS MVP honors, went with it, and launched a two-run homer into the left-center-field seats, igniting pandemonium at Citizens Bank Park.

“I felt like I was making good pitches the whole at-bat,” Suarez said through a team interpreter. “The one that he hit out was outside. He was able to connect.”

The Padres threatened in the ninth, because of course they did. These Padres spent huge chunks of the 2022 regular season and postseason with their backs against the wall, and they usually punched back. They put two men aboard, before the Phillies called for Game 3 starter Ranger Suárez, a lefty, to face the lefty-hitting Trent Grisham.

Melvin didn’t like his righty options off the bench, so instead the coaching staff and Grisham devised a plan. It had rained all afternoon. The grass was slick. If the speedy Grisham could push a bunt up the first-base line, perhaps he could wreak some havoc. If not, well, the Padres would have the tying and go-ahead runs in scoring position.

Grisham’s bunt wasn’t up to his usual standards. It became more of a sacrifice than a bunt for a hit -- though the intention was the opposite. On the next pitch, Nola flied out. The Padres’ 2022 season had come to an abrupt and unwelcome end.

After three straight weekends of clinch celebrations, this one brought a different scene in the San Diego clubhouse. Couches and chairs were moved at all angles so players could kick back, perhaps enjoy a beverage, while sharing a few stories and laughs, before they faced the harsh reality. It was over.

The 2023 Padres will likely look very similar (with a few lingering questions at first base and on their pitching staff). Their goal will be exactly the same. But the '23 season felt a long way away in the bowels of Citizens Bank Park.

“It’s never easy losing,” said Musgrove. “But I think this team was so special this season. … For the fans in San Diego, this is obviously a tough time. They wanted to see us go all the way. We wanted that more than anybody. But they have a lot to be excited about -- about this team and what’s to come.”