San Diego Topples Los Angeles With Small-Ball Heroics in NLDS Clincher

Jake Cronenworth
Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

It had been leading up to this all day. After the Phillies routed the heavily favored Braves, after the Astros clinched their ALCS ticket with a go-ahead home run by Jeremy Peña in the 18th inning, and after Oscar Gonzalez walked up to the SpongeBob SquarePants theme and walked off the Yankees, of course it was the Padres who authored the closing spectacle. Down 3–0 in the seventh of Game 4, they rallied for five runs and are headed to the NLCS, their first in 24 years.

The Dodgers, meanwhile, have been saddled with one of their most humiliating losses in recent memory. A juggernaut in the regular season, none of their 111-win momentum carried over into this elimination game, or the entire series for that matter. For those who enjoy it, Los Angeles’ rapid implosion is a refreshing splash of schadenfreude; the 116-win 2001 Mariners at least made it past the Division Series, but the 2022 Dodgers will live in infamy for having won one measly playoff game.

Their collapse is made all the more heartbreaking by the auspicious start that preceded it. Watching the Dodgers had been an excruciating experience this series, punctuated by brief moments of hope to be deflated soon after. They were 0-for-their-last-20 with runners in scoring position, if that makes sense. But finally, Los Angeles broke through in the third inning. Mookie Betts drew a lead-off walk, Trea Turner doubled, and so did Freddie Freeman to drive in two runs:

For the first time in what felt like an interminable while, the top of the Dodgers’ order resembled the well-oiled, run-producing machine that flattened its opponents. Before it could kick into overdrive, however, Joe Musgrove settled down, getting the two additional outs needed to shut the door.

Speaking of Musgrove, he featured his four-seam fastball 44% of the time, which, considering his regular-season rate of 24%, was uncharacteristic. But it also made perfect sense. The one misconception about the Dodgers, likely popularized by this graphic, is that they are a superb fastball-hitting team. Rather, they are a superb fastball-taking team; their chase-averse tendencies are responsible for a collectively high run value. When attempting to make contact, though, the Dodgers have been objectively terrible. The optimal strategy against them, then, is to throw fastballs for strikes. That’s basically what Musgrove did, even though he sometimes strayed too far to his glove side:

As a result, Musgrove largely cruised through the game. The only other moment of danger he encountered came in the sixth, when fatigue seemed to set in, resulting in a walk followed by a single. But as the internet loves to proclaim, Musgrove got that dog in him. He struck out Chris Taylor looking for the second out, then Gavin Lux swinging on a perfectly-located high fastball for the third.

On the mound for the Dodgers was Tyler Anderson, who had an unfathomable career year because, well, Mark Prior magic. If Musgrove cruised, then Anderson whooshed by the Padres’ lineup, collecting easy outs via his herky-jerky delivery, sparkling command, and revamped changeup. All in all, he finished the day with two hits allowed and six strikeouts scattered across five complete frames. He reasonably could have gone out for the sixth, but with Juan Soto due up, Dave Roberts didn’t want to grant the Padres a third gander at his deceptive lefty — a debatable decision, but not as consequential as the one to follow.

Indeed, it’s after both starting pitchers exited that the game’s intensity cranked up to 11. Short bursts of chaos ensued — perhaps to foreshadow, or maybe to provide a warm-up, like how a musician practices the scales before a concert. In the bottom of the sixth, Chris Martin coughed up two singles before narrowly escaping the jam. In the top of the seventh, it became obvious that Steven Wilson had zero feel for his breaking ball: Betts drew another lead-off walk, advanced to second on a wild pitch, and after Turner laid down a soft bunt single (!), suddenly there were runners at the corners. A few pitches later, what initially looked like a passed ball turned out to have grazed Freeman, loading the bases. Will Smith got in a sacrifice fly to grant the Dodgers at least some insurance. The small-ball tactics continued as Los Angeles executed a double steal off a complacent Tim Hill, but they came to naught as Max Muncy struck out and Justin Turner grounded out.

Then the Padres struck back. They watched the Dodgers’ modest efforts, scoffed, and proceeded to litter the field with bloop hits in a veritable small-ball monsoon. Tommy Kahnle isn’t a bad pitcher; he’s great, in fact, with two scoreless outings this series already under his belt. But he chose just about the worst time not to bring his A-game. Jurickson Profar waited out four balls for a leadoff walk; Trent Grisham, red-hot since the Wild Card Series, stroked a single into center. The broadcast noted that the entire bottom of the Padres’ order had been productive. Right on cue, Austin Nola slapped down a ball that Freeman couldn’t handle. San Diego was on the board:

Roberts’ quick hook activated again, as he replaced Kahnle with Yency Almonte. Almonte also isn’t a bad pitcher; he’s great, in fact, having struck out all five Padres batters he had faced in this series. But against Ha-Seong Kim, whose name was being chanted by thousands of rabid fans, he left a pitch within the shortstop’s reach:

Not to be out-shadowed, Soto followed suit with a line drive to right, tying the game at three apiece. Despite that, Almonte stayed in the game and retired Manny Machado and Brandon Drury with a strikeout and pop out, respectively. But when Jake Cronenworth came up to bat, Almonte threw a single pitch for a ball, then stood and watched his manager trudged toward the mound. In an instant, the question on the minds of everyone watching was answered: Roberts had executed the rare mid-batter pitching change.

Was it a sensible move? Before going any further, though, let’s get the result out of the way: Alex Vesia entered the game and allowed a two-run single to Cronenworth. But we’re here to judge the process behind the decision. On paper, sheltering Almonte from Cronenworth is the correct option, as sweeping sliders get pummeled by opposite-handed hitters. Vesia provides a jarring contrast: He’s a lefty who throws a riding four-seamer and a traditional, downwards-breaking slider. But Roberts could have elected to walk Cronenworth intentionally, setting up an ideal matchup against the right-handed Wil Myers — especially since the Dodgers were apparently fine with letting a giddy Soto steal second base and crab-walk the last 20 or 30 feet. In terms of run expectancy, the difference between “two outs, bases loaded” and “two outs, runners on second and third” is miniscule. Alternatively, the Dodgers could have opened the inning with Evan Phillips, the high-leverage reliever to end all high-leverage relievers.

In the end, though, had Vesia retired Cronenworth, this wouldn’t have been a source of controversy. It’s because the go-ahead runs ended up scoring that Roberts’ decision-making was put under scrutiny. This doesn’t seem like a colossal lapse in judgement; the Padres simply played better baseball, capitalizing on opportunities foregone by their division rivals.

No further runs scored, but by then, the Dodgers had given into their defeatism. Under pouring rain, Robert Suarez retired a lifeless side in the eighth. Phillips did enter the game, possibly an inning too late, and made quick work of Grisham, Nola, and Kim. An eventless eighth inning set the stage for Josh Hader. There was some hope left for Los Angeles in the form of Betts, Turner, and Freeman, but they waved and missed in front of a revitalized Hader. Three strikeouts later, the Padres and their faithful fans could celebrate in ecstasy:

It didn’t matter that the Dodgers dominated the Padres in regular-season play. It didn’t matter that they won 111 games. In postseason baseball, what happened in the past goes out the window. And when victory mattered most, it’s the Padres who emerged triumphant. On Tuesday, the city of San Diego will host the Phillies, having slain the monster and lived to tell the tale.





Justin is a contributor at FanGraphs. His previous work can be found at Prospects365 and Dodgers Digest. His less serious work can be found on Twitter @justinochoi.

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bosoxforlifemember
3 months ago

I feel cheated! Here on the east coast it was past midnight and this old man fell asleep just as the Padres mounted their spectacular rally. Apparently this was just the same type of rally that the Guardians executed against the Yankees just a few hours before. One punctuated by hits, not HR’s, and maintaining tremendous tension and excitement for a sustained period of time. Baseball at its best!

Spahn_and_Sain
3 months ago
Reply to  bosoxforlife

Surely you can’t complain about the 6 straight Ks by the Padres bullpen to close out the 8th & 9th once they took the lead, either.

bosoxforlifemember
3 months ago
Reply to  Spahn_and_Sain

Since excessive strikeouts is the only real complaint I have about baseball as it is played today I am not complaining that I didn’t have to experience that.

Spahn_and_Sain
3 months ago
Reply to  bosoxforlife

Yes, but those were strikeouts of sustained and tremendous tension and excitement.

Jason Bmember
3 months ago
Reply to  Spahn_and_Sain

Rob Deer was certainly ahead of his time

SCRays
3 months ago
Reply to  Spahn_and_Sain

To me I love to see the small market/budget teams beat the large market/rich teams. Their organizations are far superior and dont get enough credit. Even on Fangraphs!

proiste
3 months ago
Reply to  SCRays

I love an underdog story, but the Padres are definitely not a “budget” team. They had the fifth-highest payroll in MLB this year and have been heavy spenders for a while now.

RonnieDobbs
3 months ago
Reply to  proiste

They have bought that entire roster! They have done a good job of buying things though.