Decades in the Making, the Dodgers-Padres Rivalry Has Arrived

This picture of Mookie Betts looks like something out of a postseason highlight reel. It looks, in fact, very much like a picture of Mookie Betts from last October, when he made a number of game- and series-saving catches en route to the Dodgers’ World Series championship. It isn’t: it’s from April 17, last weekend, when the Padres hosted the Dodgers for a three-game set. The catch Betts was celebrating did, indeed, save the game — but it wasn’t a game that meant the difference between living and dying. It was a game that meant the difference between being 11-2 or 10-3.

Even though it might not have been life-or-death, the first meeting between the Dodgers and Padres since they squared off in the NLDS last year was a wild ride. At no point over the three games did either team have more than a two-run lead during regulation play. There were critical errors and rapidly-changing leads. There were blown saves. There were extra innings and cleared benches. When the smoke cleared and the dust settled, the Dodgers had taken two of three — but none of the three games had felt like a foregone conclusion. Game 1 saw the teams trade runs before the Padres tied it late, forcing extras; it was won in the 12th, with Joe Musgrove in left, Jake Cronenworth on the mound, and David Price at the plate. Game 2 was a pitchers’ duel, with Clayton Kershaw and Yu Darvish exchanging zeroes. The deciding run was a bases-loaded walk with two out — drawn by Kershaw himself. In the ninth, the Padres had the tying runs on second and third before Betts came through with a diving catch. And in Game 3, the Dodgers got an early lead off Blake Snell only for the Padres to chip away at their bullpen, eventually scoring three definitive runs in the bottom of the eighth to put the game away.

It was, in short, must-watch baseball — a worthy followup to the twists and turns of the NLDS. Game 2 of that series, in particular, when Cody Bellinger robbed Fernando Tatis Jr. of a would-be go-ahead homer and the Padres loaded the bases against Joe Kelly in the ninth, seems like a direct precursor to what we saw last week. But it’s not just that recent postseason meeting that has contributed to the burgeoning rivalry. There’s been a long history leading up to this point.

The first game that the Dodgers and the Padres ever played against each other was at Dodger Stadium on April 15, 1969. In the beginning, it seemed like it could be a pitchers’ duel. With Johnny Podres on the mound for the Padres, facing his old team in what would be his final season in the majors, and Claude Osteen for the Dodgers, the first four innings passed so quickly and uneventfully that you could have blinked and missed them.

But then the bottom of the fifth hit, and things fell apart. A groundout gave way to a walk, three consecutive singles, and yet another walk, before Andy Kosco hit a grand slam that put the Dodgers ahead 6-0. From there, while Osteen limited the Padres to only three hits, the Dodger lineup piled eight more runs on in front of their home crowd. The final score was 14-0, the game completed in an astonishingly brisk two hours and 13 minutes. “Dodgers ruin Padres,” proclaimed one headline. “Dodgers smash Padres,” declared another.

It was the Padres’ fourth consecutive loss after beginning their existence with a sweep of the Houston Astros before getting swept by the San Francisco Giants. The Dodgers felt no pity for their predicament. The next day, they piled another nine runs on the Padres, who were only able to muster up a lone run in response.

The Padres would go on to finish their inaugural season with a 52-110, with a Pythagorean record that was somehow even worse than that. Nearly a decade would pass before they had a winning season; it would take several years after that before they would string together consecutive years at or above .500. During the years of Tony Gwynn’s incredible peak, they made the postseason for the first time, advancing all the way to the World Series before losing to the Detroit Tigers. Another 11 seasons passed before their next postseason appearance, when they were swept out of the NLDS by the Cardinals; when they once again advanced to the World Series, they were, again, swept, this time by the Yankees. Two appearances in the NLDS in the 2000s both ended quickly.

Meanwhile, while the Padres struggled to achieve mediocrity in the 70s, the Dodgers appeared in the World Series three times. They won a title in 1981, and then another in 1988, with Kirk Gibson — who, with the Tigers, played a part in defeating the first Padres team to make it to the postseason — becoming a figure of legend. And during the long Padres postseason drought of the 2010s, the Dodgers — the ones we know now — became one of the great powerhouse teams in all of baseball history. The Dodgers and the Padres have never been true rivals, mostly because the gap between the franchises seemed too vast. There was one of baseball’s classic teams, with a century of history in the country’s two most important cities, with a huge fanbase and incredible resources; and there, a few hours south, their expansion counterparts, the humble mendicants searching for sustained success. The Dodgers have dominated the Padres in their regular-season meetings.

It’s that distance — two teams seemingly on trajectories as different as could be — that makes the collision currently happening so thrilling. The seeds that were planted over five decades of Dodger dominance are finally taking root. They are geographically close enough to create the frenzied crowd energy of games between nearby rivals, the uniquely personal nature of inter-city grievances. And now that their trajectories have aligned, with franchise players signed to long-term deals, every clash is another line of verse in the growing epic. One can envision these teams meeting again and again — in three years, or five. What will have changed, then? Who will be ascending? Who will have the upper hand?

Right now, that team is clearly still the Dodgers. They are 14-4; even with some questionable defense and a lack of hitting of their last few games, they managed a winning road trip against the Padres and the Mariners. The Padres, after dropping their series are back at .500; Chris Paddack is still not good, Tatis still not fully himself, and Dinelson Lamet is injured. Really, the Dodgers will always have the upper hand: they simply have the resources to be a perpetual juggernaut. But within that assurance of contention is enough uncertainty for a challenger to rise — every baseball dynasty has eventually fallen — and within that uncertainty lies some great baseball to come.

RJ is the dilettante-in-residence at FanGraphs. Previous work can be found at Baseball Prospectus, VICE Sports, and The Hardball Times.

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2 years ago

this looks like it’s shaping up to be the yankees red sox rivalry of the early 00s