The Dodgers arrived here for the final leg of their longest road trip of this short, strange season to encounter the club thirsting to dethrone them in the National League West.
For years, the San Diego Padres have been touted as a future contender. They’ve piled up prospects, whiffed on blockbuster trades and signings, nailed others, and constructed a team deemed ready to make noise in 2020. They believe that future is, finally, now.
Monday’s series opener offered a marquee pitching matchup between two brash and budding aces. Walker Buehler took the mound for the Dodgers. Chris Paddack was on the other side. In the end, with the Dodgers without an injured Mookie Betts, the bullpens were the difference in the Dodgers’ 5-4 loss at Petco Park.
With the score tied at three, the Padres (7-4) jumped ahead in the sixth inning off relievers Brusdar Graterol and Caleb Ferguson. Graterol was charged with both runs in his two-thirds of an inning.
“We expected three good ones this series,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “This is a very talented offensive club. They’re playing well, they have a lot of confidence. So, this was no surprise.”
The Dodgers’ lineup Wednesday didn’t include Betts for the first time this season. The star right fielder was absent after leaving Sunday’s game against the Arizona Diamondbacks with an injured left middle finger.
Roberts confirmed Betts hurt the finger during his final at-bat Sunday. He concluded the plate appearance with his second home run and played defense for two more innings before he was replaced in the seventh.
Roberts said tests on the finger were negative but the swelling was still “substantial” Monday. In a pregame interview with the Dodgers’ radio network, Betts said he hadn’t tried swinging a bat since hitting the home run.
“Playing defense wasn’t bad,” Betts said. “I don’t know if I can hold a bat. …We’re so deep on our team; I’d rather not play at 50, 60%, or whatever, so let some guys play at 100% that are really good.”
After the game, Roberts said Betts was limited to one-arm swinging drills with his right arm and was available to pinch-run late.
“We’ll see how he feels tomorrow and see if we can get him in there,” Roberts said.
Without Betts, the Dodgers (7-4) opted for a retro look: placing Joc Pederson in the leadoff spot against right-hander Chris Paddack. Pederson was the club’s leadoff hitter against right-handed starting pitchers last year and offered an immediate slugging threat. His nine leadoff homers led the National League.
It took one pitch to start the count this season. Pederson crushed Paddack’s first offering — a 95-mph fastball over the outer half of the plate — over the left-center-field wall. It was his first home run of the season and his 21st career leadoff shot.
The blast gave Buehler a cushion before he stepped on the mound a year to the day after annihilating the Padres at Dodger Stadium. The right-hander allowed a run, compiled 15 strikeouts, and walked none in a complete-game win that night. Fans were in attendance. The Dodgers were cruising to another division title. The Padres were failing to live up to the hype again.
Recording all 27 outs wasn’t a possibility for Buehler on Monday. Before the game, Roberts said Buehler would top out at five innings or around 75 pitches, whichever came first, after not building up to his standard stamina in time for the season.
Buehler lasted 3 2/3 innings in his first outing against the Houston Astros last week. He went five innings Monday and gave up three runs — all on solo home runs. He walked three, struck out three and threw 79 pitches.
Each of the Padres’ three home runs off Buehler came on secondary pitches. Trent Grisham clubbed a cutter in the first inning, Wil Myers connected on a slider in the fourth and Fernando Tatis Jr. whacked a first-pitch curveball in the fifth. Those were the only hits Buehler allowed.
“To get through five innings, I think, is a small win given how I threw the ball,” Buehler said. “But, hopefully, we take the reins off and I go and help us win some games.”
Tatis’ home run tied the game after Will Smith delivered a one-out two-run double off Paddack in the top of the frame. The chance to score more, however, was abruptly over when Smith was picked off at third base.
Smith was later barreled over by Tatis a few feet up the baseline from home plate during a rundown to end the seventh inning. Justin Turner and Tatis exchanged words, but Roberts insisted there was “nothing contentious.” Smith said he didn’t believe Tatis crossed a line.
“I didn’t like getting run over,” Smith said, “but it wasn’t dirty or anything.”
Two innings later, Cody Bellinger slugged his second homer in two days to lead off the ninth and slice the Dodgers’ deficit in half against Padres closer Kirby Yates. But Yates struck out the next three batters to secure the save and a win over the team they’re itching to oust.
Three observations on the Dodgers
1. Scott Alexander revealed Monday that he reported late to training camp because he tested positive for COVID-19. The left-handed reliever said he experienced mild symptoms for 24 hours. Alexander, a diabetic, said he didn’t consider opting out of the season.
2. Corey Seager was back in the lineup as the designated hitter Monday after missing Sunday’s game with a quadriceps issue. He went two for four with a double, raising his average to .375.
3. Dave Roberts said the team is considering keeping Joc Pederson in the leadoff spot against right-handed starters. The Dodgers began the season with Max Muncy leading off against right-handers and Mookie Betts against left-handers.