NLCS-bound Padres find their identity, eliminate Dodgers

SAN DIEGO (AP) – As a rare October storm drenched Petco Park in the eighth inning, no one in the San Diego Padres’ packed downtown home town flinched.

Fans pulled on hoodies, put on ponchos and covered their heads with whatever they could to stay dry, including yellow rally towels and pizza boxes.

They’ve suffered through too many seasons of mostly terrible baseball and weren’t about to pass up an opportunity to chant “Beat LA!” with the gusto and cheers of Cody Bellinger one last time as the Padres stood on the brink of eliminating their bitter rivals, the 111-win Los Angeles Dodgers.

After the Padres took the lead with a stunning five-run rally in the seventh that literally shook the stadium, reliever Robert Suarez methodically retired Trayce Thompson, Bellinger and Gavin Lux. The 31-year-old rookie, who was lights out in the division series, showed no emotion until he hit a three over Lux and then hit his glove with his right fist several times as he walked toward the dugout and the crowd roared.

An inning later, with his long hair billowing from under his hat, All-Star closer Josh Hader struck out Mookie Betts, Treo Turner and Freddie Freeman in quick succession to spark one of the biggest parties San Diego’s center has ever seen.

“This is what the city has been waiting for,” a bare-chested Manny Machado said amid the chaos of the clubhouse celebration after the Padres beat the Dodgers 5-3 on Saturday night to clinch the NL Championship Series for the first time since 1998.

The Padres have won three straight games against the Dodgers to take the division series 3-1 and will host Bryce Harper and the Philadelphia Phillies in the all-wild card NLCS beginning Tuesday night.

The best-of-seven matchup also has a fun twist — Phillies ace Aaron Nola faces his older brother, Padres catcher Austin Nola.

Two members of the 1998 Padres team, Hall of Fame closers Trevor Hoffman and Steve Finley, watched from a luxury suite Saturday night and pumped their fists in glee after Jake Cronenworth gave the Padres a 5-3 lead with a two-run single in the seventh.

As much as Saturday night was about rewarding long-suffering fans who never celebrated a World Series championship, it was also about a Padres team that played in the exhaust fumes of the mighty Dodgers for most of the season before finding its identity at the right time.

And the players broke free. Cronenworth, an All-Star second baseman who struggled offensively during the regular season, raised his arms as he rounded first on his go-ahead single, then punched the air and yelled as he entered second base on the throw home.

Machado and Juan Soto, acquired from Washington in a blockbuster trade deadline, urged fans to cheer louder during the postgame on-field celebration. Blake Snell ran around the infield with a plastic goose and threw it near home plate. The Padres had two plastic “rally geese” in their dugout in Games 3 and 4 after a real goose landed on the field at Dodger Stadium late in their 5-3 Game 2 win on Wednesday night.

Machado, the $300 million All-Star third baseman and the team’s unquestioned leader, has carried the Padres all year in the absence of electrifying shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. Tatis was on the verge of returning from wrist surgery when he was suspended 80 games by MLB after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug.

General manager AJ Preller pulled off two big trades, acquiring Hader from Milwaukee on Aug. 1 and inducting Soto and Josh Bell into an emergency deal with Washington the next day. Neither trade helped the Padres close a double-digit deficit on the Dodgers in the NL West standings. Hader was even pulled from his closer role for a while after struggling with his new team.

But Hader regained his footing and had three straight saves in the NLDS as he, Suarez and Luis Garcia shut down the Dodgers.

“Crazy,” Hader said of drawing last. “I think I passed out. But it was amazing.”

On his first day in a Padres uniform, right after the Soto trade was made official, Hader said he felt an “infectious vibe” that the Padres wanted to not only make the playoffs but win the World Series.

“I knew what we were coming here for,” said Hader, who was drenched in beer as midnight approached Saturday. “I knew this team was stacked. This team was full of stallions. It just took time to warm up at the right time and that’s what we do. We’re not done yet. We’ve got a lot to do, but to be able to go into this, beat LA, that’s huge.”

Right-hander Joe Musgrove grew up a Padres fan in suburban El Cajon and celebrated Saturday night with his No-No Joe Double IPA, launched by a local microbrewery after he threw the first no-hitter in franchise history in just his second start with his by the native team on April 9, 2021.

“Our fans have waited so long, and I used to be that fan that waited,” said Musgrove, who won a no-decision on Saturday night, six days after his brilliant performance in the wild-card series win against New York Mets.

The Dodgers have beaten the Padres in nine straight series since 2021. But the Padres won the series that mattered most.

“I know the job is not done. There’s a lot of baseball ahead of us, but this is something to celebrate,” Musgrove said. “Those guys have been giving it to us all year and when it came down to it and we needed to win, we found a way to do it.”


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