SAN DIEGO — An exaggerated yet apt summary of this Padres season unfolded in the span of consecutive half-innings here Monday afternoon.
In the bottom of the third, the home team tantalized a sellout crowd — Petco Park’s 25th in a row — by turning a scoreless tie into a five-run lead. The barrage against opposing starter Tony Gonsolin featured a two-run homer by catcher Luis Campusano and appeared to put San Diego on the verge of avoiding a 12th straight regular-season series loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
In the top of the fourth, that modest dream went up in smoke as the Padres encapsulated their months-long failure to build momentum.
Seven consecutive batters reached base against Seth Lugo, who pitched to a tight strike zone and later said the Dodgers knew what was coming. Eight runs scored in a season-worst inning for the Padres (and a career-worst outing for Lugo). Manager Bob Melvin, who pulled Lugo after a Mookie Betts grand slam, paid heavily for attempting to stretch another out from his starter ahead of Tuesday’s expected bullpen game against Seattle. Los Angeles made it 13 unanswered runs with another volley in the sixth before Campusano came up with an RBI single.
In the end, it was a familiar story. The Dodgers outwitted and outplayed the Padres in a 13-7 romp that saw the home team squeeze at least 15 outs from its bullpen for a second consecutive day.
“We were on the verge of .500 a couple games ago, and then we have two tough ones again,” Melvin said. “So, we continue to take some blows. But, you know, another challenge to get off the mat tomorrow. That’s our expectation.”
MOOKIE GRAND SLAM? QUE PADRE. pic.twitter.com/HmF6PFbA3L
— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) August 7, 2023
A broader perspective continues to help: The Padres, despite losing a four-game series, did not lose ground in the National League wild-card chase because multiple teams ahead of them keep stumbling — San Diego, in fact, went from four games back of a theoretical playoff spot to 3 1/2 games back.
But there is this, too: With 49 games left, a 55-58 team continues to run out of time to mount the kind of inspired run that launched the 2022 Padres into the postseason. Last year’s club, of course, had significantly more room for error; roughly a year ago, San Diego was 62-51. And now, a season-long strength looks vulnerable.
The Padres revealed Friday that the leader of their pitching staff, Joe Musgrove, would be sidelined at least into September because of a shoulder injury. A day later, the team’s overall outlook seemed to brighten with its biggest comeback of 2023, an eighth-inning rally that recalled the way the Padres conquered the Dodgers in last October’s postseason.
But, until they do it again, that playoff triumph will be remembered more as an outlier than a tectonic shift. Saturday, newcomer Rich Hill surrendered six runs in his three-inning Padres debut. Sunday, Lugo cruised for three innings. Then, in the fourth, the Dodgers advanced past first base for the first time.
When the dust finally settled, Lugo had walked two batters and surrendered six hits. Only one of the hits was not well-struck. The other five came off two curveballs, two changeups and one 3-0 fastball that Betts demolished for the finishing blow. After the game, Lugo described retreating to the clubhouse and learning, via video, that the Dodgers had been relaying his pitch grips from second base.
“You try to stay locked in and focus on executing pitches, and some other stuff just slips your mind,” Lugo said.
“It starts from before runners are on base,” Campusano said. “My part is just to set up a little later — you know, maybe that can prevent relays. As far as maybe tipping (pitches), I’m not so sure on what was going on. But at the end of the day, we gotta make pitches.”
Execution, indeed, was just as big of a problem.
“I knew coming in what they were gonna do, especially on (secondary pitches),” Lugo said. “And I feel like I made some quality pitches and didn’t get some calls and it forced me to make some pitches that caught more plate than you would like. But if you’re ahead in those counts, you’re sitting in a pretty good spot.”
A day after needing six innings from his relievers, Melvin had hoped Lugo could supply six or so innings himself. Then, the Dodgers pounced in the fourth. Melvin got one of his better relievers, Steven Wilson, up in the bullpen. He allowed Lugo, who had struck Betts out in the leadoff hitter’s first two at-bats, to stay in for what turned out to be a final, ill-fated encounter.
“We weren’t at the point where (Wilson) was ready yet,” Melvin said.
One could have argued that Melvin should’ve gotten Wilson loose earlier. Still, the top of the fourth had unraveled faster than almost anyone expected. (“It was a bit of a surprise,” Melvin said. “I mean, (Lugo) was pitching great leading up to that.”)
Either way, the Padres absorbed plenty of collateral damage. Wilson was used for five outs. Newcomer Scott Barlow allowed a career-worst five runs in the top of the sixth. Luis García went two innings for the first time this season. All three might be unavailable in Tuesday’s series opener at T-Mobile Park, where scheduled starter Nick Martinez — who pitched two innings Saturday — figures to be capped under 60 pitches.
Monday was not all bad. Campusano went deep again in the ninth to log his first multi-homer game in the majors. The 24-year-old and veteran Gary Sánchez, since May 31, have combined for 17 home runs — more than any other team’s catchers in that span. What was formerly a glaring weakness for San Diego has turned into a relative strength.
And, like Saturday’s bottom of the eighth, the bottom of the third showed the Padres are more than capable of producing combined firepower.
“We played really good baseball,” left fielder Juan Soto said. “We (scored) five runs in the front today, and we just couldn’t keep it. But it is what it is; it’s just baseball, you know? Sometimes you’re gonna be good, sometimes it’s gonna be bad. We just got to take it as a man and keep moving forward.”
Of course, a team with the sport’s third-highest payroll was not intended to vacillate between good and bad as consistently as San Diego has. The Dodgers continue to demonstrate far more sustainability; L.A., despite leading the majors in cumulative days lost to the injured list, appears headed for its 10th division title in 11 years.
The Padres, meanwhile, are running out of time to prove last October wasn’t an outlier. Their next test: two games in Seattle against a Mariners team that has won 10 of its last 12.
(Photo of Fernando Tatis Jr.: Orlando Ramirez / USA Today)