At 'nitty-gritty time,' Padres can't hold early lead

August 8th, 2023

SAN DIEGO -- The Padres will always have the 2022 National League Division Series. Those moments -- Manny Machado's torrid week, Jake Cronenworth's series-winning single, Josh Hader's strikeout of Freddie Freeman to end it -- should remain indelible in franchise lore for a long, long time.

But there's a reason those moments felt so cathartic for the Padres and for San Diego. Because outside of that series, this rivalry has been awfully one-sided lately.

With their 13-7 loss to the Dodgers on Monday afternoon at Petco Park, the Padres dropped a 12th consecutive regular-season series against their Southern California rivals.

The 2023 season began with San Diego installed as slight favorites to win the NL West. Needless to say, it has not unfolded as planned. The Padres (55-58) trail by 11 games in the division -- a lead for which they’re no longer realistically aiming. It’s no longer about chasing Los Angeles. Right now, the primary objective in San Diego is finding a way to sneak into the postseason via a Wild Card spot. After all, the Padres have seen what can happen when you do.

“This is nitty-gritty time,” said Cronenworth. “This is it. ... Where we're at record-wise, games back, we're in it. But we need to grab ahold of that and go.”

The climb toward a playoff spot is an uphill one for the Padres, who are four games back in the Wild Card race, needing to jump past four teams to secure a spot. As such, they can’t afford many more gut-punch losses like this one.

San Diego jumped in front 5-0 with a five-run third inning against Dodgers starter Tony Gonsolin. Luis Campusano homered. Ha-Seong Kim extended his career-high hitting streak to 13 games. Petco Park was rocking.

Then the Dodgers punched back with a whopping eight runs in the fourth off , capped by Mookie Betts’ grand slam. From there, the outcome was never really in doubt.

“It was a big game,” said Lugo. “We needed to play some good ball, and the guys put up a lot of runs. I needed to put up a better start than that to give us a chance.”

When asked, Lugo said he felt the Dodgers knew what was coming in that fateful fourth. He said he thought they’d been relaying his pitch grips from second base, though he refused to use it as an excuse for his poor outing, saying he needed to be more conscious of that possibility in the moment.

“You try to stay locked in and focused on executing pitches, and some other stuff just slips your mind,” Lugo said. “... I knew coming in what they were going to do, especially on second base.”

The Padres led, 5-4, when Betts strode to the plate with one out and the bases loaded. Lugo, sharp for the first three frames, had come completely unraveled. He’d allowed six consecutive Dodgers to reach base, and with Betts due up, manager Bob Melvin had a decision to make.

Steven Wilson was getting loose in the bullpen. But the Padres have a bullpen day scheduled for Tuesday in Seattle, and they got only three innings from Rich Hill on Sunday. Lugo was clearly faltering. But he’d punched out Betts twice already, and San Diego really, really needed some length.

As such, Melvin waited to get Wilson hot, opting to let Lugo face Betts. Lugo’s first three pitches were balls. His fourth was a middle-middle fastball, and Betts did what he usually does with those. He launched it a Statcast-projected 396 feet into the left-center-field seats.

“Once we got Wilson up, we weren’t at the point where he was ready yet,” Melvin said. “He was going to be ready for the next guy. Four runs are in. Next thing you know, it’s a grand slam. And all of a sudden, it’s eight.”

San Diego suffered its eighth loss in 10 games against the Dodgers this season. Still, the nature of the NL Wild Card race is this: The Padres dropped three of four this weekend, and they somehow managed not to lose any ground.

But in the aftermath of losing a game they’d led by five runs, the Padres weren’t viewing the weekend as incremental progress in the Wild Card race. They viewed it as a missed opportunity.

“I feel like we came out great today,” Cronenworth said. “A 5-0 lead in the third. Then all of a sudden, it's gone, they've got 13 runs. It's a tough one.”