LOS ANGELES -- The San Diego Padres navigated through most of this regular season as an enigma. The talent on their roster often did not match up with the quality of their play. Encouraging stretches typically followed poor ones. High expectations were usually tempered quickly. Along the way, though, they seemed to find strength in a singular thought: that they had yet to reach their ceiling and thus their best baseball was still in front of them.
It has apparently shown up at the most important juncture.
The Padres, the No. 5 seed in the National League, have begun these playoffs by winning three of five road games against two teams that combined for 212 wins during the regular season. They took two of three against the New York Mets at Citi Field over the weekend, stunning them in the wild-card round, and they have now split the first two games of their division series against a Los Angeles Dodgers team that dominated them over the previous six months. The Padres' latest victory, by a 5-3 score at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday night, saw them display stellar defense, string together timely hits and shut down baseball's best offense in the late innings.
Now the Padres will return home to Petco Park for the first postseason home games in San Diego -- with fans in attendance -- since 2006.
Suddenly a path toward defeating the mighty Dodgers seems very clear.
"Ultimately, I think we all believe in each other," Padres third baseman Manny Machado said. "We believed in each other all year. We've been doing it all year as well. It's just clicking for us now as a group. It's just a matter of wanting it. We want to get to the World Series; we want to bring a championship to San Diego. Ultimately the group is just getting together and just grinding this out."
The Padres dropped Game 1 on Tuesday, but they fought. They fell behind by five runs early, cut their deficit to two in the middle and kept it close late. That, Wil Myers believes, "carried over" into Game 2.
It began in the very first inning, when Machado lined a hanging slider from Clayton Kershaw over the left-field fence for a home run. The Dodgers answered with solo homers by Freddie Freeman and Max Muncy, and the Padres came back with three straight hits that produced two additional runs in the top of the third. The Dodgers tied it with another solo homer in the bottom half -- this one by Trea Turner -- and the Padres regained the lead on an RBI single from Jurickson Profar in the sixth. The Dodgers threatened thereafter, but Jake Cronenworth provided a major insurance run by homering off Blake Treinen in the eighth.
When Mookie Betts led off the fifth with a walk, Padres catcher Austin Nola gunned him down on an attempted steal with a perfect throw. When Turner followed with a 103 mph bullet to the left side, Machado corralled it with a slick play. And when the Dodgers put the first two runners on in the bottom of the sixth against a tiring Yu Darvish, Robert Suarez came out of the bullpen and shut them down, striking out Justin Turner and getting Gavin Lux to bounce into an inning-ending double play.
"We had ups and downs in the season," Padres right fielder Juan Soto said, "but we all know that we have a great team and we can do a lot of damage."
Leading up to Suarez's arrival, Soto turned in one of the night's most important plays. With one on and none out in the sixth, Muncy hit a deep drive to right that caromed off the fence. Soto briefly shot his glove into the air pretending he would settle in for a routine catch, creating just enough uncertainty for Muncy and the lead runner, Will Smith, to hold up, preventing a run from scoring and preserving what became a crucial double play.
"The deke got him," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said of Muncy. "I think at that point in time he sold it well enough that Max slowed up and ended up at first base."
The Dodgers turned in solid defense in their own right, particularly in the sixth, when Brusdar Graterol made a slick barehand play at home and Cody Bellinger spun twice to track down a deep fly ball to center. But Turner's error earlier that inning helped produce a run, and the Padres ultimately made the Dodgers pay for it. It's what good teams do.
"During the season we played a lot of close games like that," Profar said, "and it seemed like we were always losing those games."
But the Padres are operating like a different team now, and it's showing against the opponent that has given them the most trouble. The Dodgers, the division rivals they're perpetually chasing, won their last nine regular-season games against the Padres in 2021 and 14 of 19 in 2022, scoring more than twice as many runs against them this year. Their pairing in this round represented the largest margin in run-differential between two teams in postseason history.
But all that matters is who can win two of the next three, and the Padres might suddenly have the advantage. The next two games will take place at their place. Starting Games 3 and 4, respectively, will be Blake Snell, who has historically pitched well against the Dodgers, and Joe Musgrove, coming off a dominant outing against the Mets on Sunday. The Dodgers, meanwhile, have reached the uncertain portion of their rotation, with Tony Gonsolin, who hasn't pitched more than two innings since Aug. 23, getting the ball in Game 3. His start will evolve into a bullpen game.
"During the season, they beat us," Profar said of the 111-win Dodgers, who finished 22 games ahead of the Padres in the NL West. "They beat us. But we played pretty good games during the season. We lost them, and we know that if we play our good brand of baseball, we can beat 'em."