San Diego's deadline decisions finally pay off big with NLDS win

SAN DIEGO -- The players came together to form a haphazard circle in the middle of the San Diego Padres' clubhouse, at times bouncing to hip-hop and spraying champagne in unison. Peter Seidler, the owner, stood off to the side, close enough to witness the madness but far enough to be spared from it. Ten years ago, Seidler, the grandson of celebrated Los Angeles Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley, purchased this franchise with outsized expectations: the goal of the Padres taking over both their city and their division.

Saturday night -- punctuated by the 5-3 victory that eliminated the mighty Dodgers in Game 4 of the National League Division Series -- represented the manifestation of that vision.

All they had to do to make it happen was risk everything.

Seidler pointed to Manny Machado, by that point shirtless and drenched in alcohol.

"He was the big chip," Seidler said. "And now it's a place where all players wanna play."

In February 2019, the Padres signed Machado to a $300 million contract that shocked the industry and forever changed the perception of their franchise. As the Padres' offense languished through most of this past summer, it was Machado who kept them afloat, playing almost daily and producing like an MVP. His performance helped lead them back into the postseason, and once they got there, it was their two boldest trade additions who lifted them.

Juan Soto, quite possibly the biggest midseason acquisition in baseball history, produced the game-tying hit and later came around to score in the five-run seventh inning that produced an epic comeback.

Josh Hader, who had arrived in another blockbuster trade two days earlier, closed it out in the ninth, sending the Padres into the NL Championship Series for the first time since 1998.

"They're phenomenal players," Padres president of baseball operations A.J. Preller said. "That's why we made the trades, honestly. It's pretty simple -- they're the best at what they do in the world. If you're gonna beat a team like that, you need guys that are the best in the game."

No man embodies the boldness of these Padres better than Preller, widely regarded as the most hyper-aggressive executive in the sport, for better or worse. When he first joined the Padres in 2014, Preller went all-in with expensive veteran players. It didn't work, he sold off pieces, quickly rebuilt the farm system -- and used those assets to go for it again.

The Machado contract was followed by a flurry of trades that outfitted the starting rotation with names such as Yu Darvish, Blake Snell, Mike Clevinger, Joe Musgrove and Sean Manaea. The team was expected to compete with the Dodgers in 2021, and for a while, it did. A second-half collapse saw them miss the playoffs entirely but paved the way for the hiring of Bob Melvin, one of the most revered managers in the sport. Finally, a subpar start to the 2022 season led to the moves that ultimately pushed the Padres over the top.

Last year's collapse was centered on activity around the trade deadline, when, among other things, Preller spoke to Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo about the possibility of combining Max Scherzer and Trea Turner in a package, then watched that package go to the Dodgers. The Padres did not do much else, and faded shortly thereafter. This year, Preller was determined not to miss out again. On July 31, he sent his closer, Taylor Rogers, and three others to the Milwaukee Brewers for Hader, then shipped all of his best young players -- Robert Hassell, CJ Abrams and MacKenzie Gore, among others -- to the Nationals for Soto and the power-hitting Josh Bell on Aug. 2.

It took two months for those moves to truly pan out.

After arriving in San Diego, Hader struggled so badly that he was removed as the closer, only to find his form near the end of the regular season. So far, he has displayed his customary dominance in October. Soto lacked his prototypical power for most of August and September but is now a major threat once again.

"With Juan, it's not a matter of if he's gonna get going -- it's a matter of when," Preller said. "He got some huge hits in this series, huge hits tonight. He's that guy."

Soto, the 23-year-old outfielder who has already drawn comparisons to Ted Williams, had a .388 on-base percentage in 52 regular-season games with the Padres but slugged only .390, 43 points below this year's major league average. Then he compiled four hits in Games 2 and 3 of the Padres' wild-card series against the New York Mets. And though his NLDS numbers (3-for-16) didn't jump out, he produced eight batted balls that exceeded 100 mph, which doesn't include his 95 mph single in Saturday's seventh inning.

"It was a really important moment, a tight moment, and I just wanted to come through for this team," Soto said in Spanish. "I'm trying to give them everything I have and see how far we can take this."

As much as Soto settling in ahead of Machado changes the outlook of the Padres' lineup, Hader dominating the ninth inning changes the dynamic of their bullpen.

Hader, a four-time All-Star, gave up 22 runs in a nine-inning stretch from July 13 to Aug. 28, an unimaginable slump for one of the sport's most dominant relievers. Toward the tail end of that stretch, the Padres demoted Hader to low-leverage work. But then he started to get right again. The bad mechanical habits he picked up near the end of his stint with the Brewers were eventually corrected. And down the stretch, while other relievers emerged, he allowed just one unearned run and five baserunners over his last 10 appearances of the regular season. So far, he's pitched 4 1/3 scoreless innings in the playoffs.

"This is the worst down I've ever had, but you can't give up," Hader said. "You can't just roll over and be like, 'Oh well, this is the way it is.' You can't do that. We play this game way too hard, we play it way too much to just give up. It made me a better player, knowing that mentally, if you can go through that s---, you can go through anything. You just have to continue to trust what you do."

Saturday night was a culmination for Seidler, who famously called the Dodgers "the dragon up the freeway that we're trying to slay." His franchise has slayed the dragon -- on the strength of the stars who were brought in and in front of the fans who had rallied around them.

Petco Park normally attracts so many Dodgers fans that it is unofficially named "Dodger Stadium South." But that was different on Friday and Saturday. The team geo-restricted the primary ticket market to maximize the number of Padres fans in attendance, limiting sales to people residing in the San Diego area and creating an unprecedented energy at Petco Park. Bright yellow towels decorated the ballpark; "Beat L.A." chants filled the air; fake geese dotted the stands. Rain started to come down hard in the late innings, but nobody left.

Seidler was asked whether he could have ever imagined this type of energy in this city.

"No," he said. "I could dream all kinds of things, but this, what happened yesterday and today, was remarkable.

"Every single fan I think is still in the building, and it's been half an hour after we won. And they're wet and they're cold, but they love this group of players, and the players love the fans."