In a season unlike any before it, the Padres made a statement in 2020. One of the most exciting teams in franchise history put forth one of the most successful seasons in franchise history. They became “Slam Diego.” And with one of the youngest rosters in baseball, there’s more to come.
Eventually, the Padres will take solace in that fact. Because the sting from the way it ended will take some time to get over.
“This is a growing pain,” shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. said, following his team’s 12-3 loss to Los Angeles in Thursday's Game 3 of the National League Division Series. “We're just getting started.”
Swept by the rival Dodgers at Globe Life Field in Arlington, the Friars are headed home without the big cake they so desperately craved, left only to rue what might have been.
What might have been ... had their two aces not sustained arm injuries in the week before the postseason? Mike Clevinger and Dinelson Lamet combined for all of 24 playoff pitches. The Padres' bullpen came unglued against Los Angeles.
What might have been ... had Cody Bellinger mistimed his leap, or hit the center-field wall awkwardly, or taken a poorer route on Tatis' long drive in the seventh inning Wednesday night? The series may have been tied; the pressure placed squarely on the Dodgers.
Those questions won’t ever be answered. So here’s a better one: What comes next?
“That feeling inside has got to be used as fuel and for the work that we still have to do,” said Padres manager Jayce Tingler.
Added Tatis: “I'm going to remember this feeling, what it's about. Trust me, I don't like it.”
If the Padres build on their 2020 breakthrough, using it as a springboard to future successes, Thursday’s ending -- those moments after they’d been cruelly eliminated at the hands of a bitter rival -- won’t sting so much. It probably won’t feel like an ending at all.
“We took a huge step this year in the right direction to really give ourselves the title of a winning organization,” said right fielder Wil Myers. “... We know how to win now. We’re expecting to win.”
In a 2020 season marked by a global pandemic that shut down the sport for 3 1/2 months and forced games to be played without fans, the Padres still managed to bring joy to a playoff-starved city.
When they rallied to beat the Cardinals to win their first playoff series in 22 years, the Padres celebrated in an empty Petco Park. Downtown San Diego erupted nonetheless. Car horns and airhorns blared, even two hours after the final out. Fans lined the streets to see off the team buses.
“The thing that we’re probably most proud of is I think we had a little bit of a hand in sparking the city of San Diego,” Tingler said. “I wish we could’ve got a bigger taste.”
The Padres made the leap from last place in the National League West to the third-best record in the Majors. They posted their first winning record in 10 years and reached their first postseason in 14. Tatis became a certifiable superstar, and Manny Machado played like the MVP candidate the Padres paid for.
Around those two cornerstones, general manager A.J. Preller constructed a deep roster -- one built for the long haul. The team’s primary contributors are, for the most part, locked up for several seasons. The farm system remains one of the best in the sport.
“There are too many things that happened this year that were positive,” said Myers, whose comeback season ranks near the top of the list. “There are too many good things that happened for this organization. There are too many big steps taken forward to look at one game at the end of the season.
“It can leave a bitter taste in your mouth, but for a good reason. You sit there and you watch the Dodgers shake hands after a win, and that could be something in your mind going into the offseason for some motivation.”
In 2020 at least, the Dodgers maintained their standing atop the National League West. Game 2 was a thriller. But Games 1 and 3 were decisive L.A. victories. The Dodgers pounded out 14 hits against a weary Padres staff on Thursday night. San Diego set a postseason record by using 11 pitchers.
The Padres have long spoken of closing the gap on the Dodgers in the National League West. Preller’s front office has obsessed over it. It’s what makes an NLDS sweep -- after all the contentiousness between the two sides this season -- particularly painful.
“They outplayed us,” Tatis said. “They played better baseball than we did. But we've just got to learn. This is just getting started.”
Make no mistake, that gap narrowed significantly in 2020. Perhaps -- with healthier arms, with offseason tweaks, with growth from a young roster -- the story ends differently in ‘21.