Asking members of the Los Angeles Dodgers what they think about the Padres, or vice versa, is a bit like asking cats to wax poetic about dogs. They might prefer to talk about something more pleasant like, say, property taxes.
There’s no doubt, though, that the current offensive lineup of the Padres is not what the Dodgers have seen or faced for almost all of the season. In broad brush strokes, the lineup card has lived three lives … pre-trade deadline, post-trade deadline when pickups Juan Soto, Josh Bell and Brandon Drury scuffled and now, when contributions from the group are trending up.
As the playoffs near, how has facing the Padres potentially changed?
“I think they have different options, as far as pinch-hitting options,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said Thursday before the series-cinching finale at Petco Park. “I think certain guys are starting to come on, Brandon Drury being one of them and, obviously, having the switch hitter with Josh Bell in there.
“I just think they’ve got more depth pieces offensively … with Soto in there, too.”
The Dodgers dominated the Padres again this season, winning 13 of 18 games entering Thursday to build a withering 21-game lead in the NL West. The teams split a pair of one-run, 10-inning dogfights this week, though.
Recent signs of life from more corners of the lineup begin to hint at a different potential group of Padres. The team has not lost a series to anyone other than the Dodgers in September, reaching 18 games over .500 — the high-water mark since 2010 — in Tuesday’s series opener.
“I think they’re a little deeper now than they were before, obviously,” Dodgers starter Tyler Anderson said. “They have a little more flexibility in their lineup now. There’s a lot of threats in there. You just have to navigate it the best you can.”
Future Hall of Fame pitcher Clayton Kershaw said, to his thinking, there’s one key to facing the Padres.
“It starts with Manny (Machado),” Kershaw said. “So to me, if he goes, that lineup’s dangerous. And if he doesn’t, you feel alright.”
The late-evolving lineup pieces around Machado? Kershaw shrugged.
“We don’t really care what they do. Never have. Never will,” he said. “We just try to handle our business. We’re trying to all accomplish the same thing. So looking at individual moves teams make is not something we concern ourselves with.”
Roberts acknowledged, however, that the lineup now feels longer.
“Yeah, I think so,” he said. “Tougher to navigate.”
The Padres have not been explosively better. They’ve inched forward offensively, rather than sprint. Things feel differently, though.
What that could mean in the playoffs, if the Padres lock down the first full-season trip since 2006, is the ultimate wait-and-see situation. A lineup uptick, coupled with a bullpen hitting its stride and strong starting pitching at the top of the rotation has started to reveal an interesting picture.
A team starved for runs for too much of the season suddenly seems to be capable of much more.
“There are definitely some teams out there when you take a little bit of a deep breath when you get to the bottom of the order,” Dodgers reliever Evan Phillips said. “That’s not really the case with the Padres. Top to bottom, there are continuous threats at the plate. I think that’s what we’ve got with the Dodgers lineup. You can see the effect is has on other teams, the stress it puts on a starting pitcher.
“It makes it harder for a manager to let a starter go out and face a lineup a fourth time. It forces your hand a little bit as an opposing team. You feel like every at-bat is a major situation.”
The playoffs often come down to plating a critical run in tight games, rather than flash floods of scoring. The Padres lost the first of nine extra-inning games at Petco Park this season Wednesday.
When October arrives, clutch production matters most all.
“Some of the guys they acquired got off to a slow start but they’re still pretty major threats at the plate,” Phillips said. “But for me personally, and I think I can speak for of us as pitchers for the Dodgers, we really attack guys the same, regardless of the name on the jersey, front or back.”
The word threats kept surfacing, again and again. Results trump all, first and always, but it’s clear the Padres are in possession of more and better options by the day.
No, it’s not a night-and-day directional change for the Padres. The offensive production arrow, though, appears to be aiming north. Even the Dodgers can agree on that, though that’s about all the clubs are likely to see eye to eye on.
Cats, dogs and all.