LOS ANGELES — This game had everything: legendary pitchers looking to live down local ghosts, headline stars hitting home runs to the heavens, a reliever with a circuitous backstory touching 101 mph to get out of a jam, a bit of savvy deception, good defense, bad defense, the tying run coming to the plate in the bottom of the ninth against a closer pushing past his usual limit, a fowl on the field, Cody Bellinger getting a hit.
It even had something never seen before: a postseason San Diego Padres victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers. With a 5-3 win on Wednesday night the 89-win upstarts have split the first two games of the NLDS against their 111-win juggernaut neighbors to the north. And together they authored an instant classic in the not-yet-especially-storied annals of Padres-Dodgers rivalry.
“It's probably as back-and-forth a game as you are going to see,” Padres manager Bob Melvin said after deadline acquisition Josh Hader completed a four-out save for the first time since Oct. 1, 2020, and just the third time in three years. “A lot of drama to it. Fun win.”
They count the fun ones just the same as the predictable or perfunctory. So often, actually, that’s the problem in baseball, the way successful play can bypass excitement on its way to a win. After all, they pay the people on the field and in the front offices to get from first pitch to 27 outs and at least one more run than their opponent with as much certainty as possible.
“Satisfaction is getting the ‘W,’” Manny Machado said, sidestepping an inquiry about any extra enjoyment he derived from quieting over 53,000 hostile fans who are still mad he didn’t show enough performative hustle in his half season there four years ago with his first-inning home run. But OK, where’s the fun in that?
We’re quick to bemoan the boring baseball that results from ruthless efficiency, so let me be unequivocal in my delight. This game was great. Letter of recommendation: A 68-degree evening in Los Angeles spent watching tense postseason baseball where every at-bat could change the game, down to the final out, and there’s a buffet of possible biggest-plays-of-the-game.
Josh Bell, Padres slugger who came over in the Juan Soto deal, didn’t play on Wednesday but he did have a great view from the dugout. In his eyes, the key moment was the solo home run from Jake Cronenwroth in the eighth inning to give San Diego a two-run lead and a little cushion heading into the final frames. The 416-foot bomb — the furthest of five solo shots between the two teams combined — was the longest play of the game by distance, but by then, the Padres had all the lead they’d need.
Austin Nola, the Padres’ catcher who debuted a personalized PitchCom for Yu Darvish’s complicated arsenal in the game, picked a fielding gem by Machado off the bat of Trea Turner in the seventh inning with runners at second and third, one of a couple missed opportunities by the Dodgers to get the tying run the final 90 feet from third to home.
“Unbelievable play all around just to eliminate them from getting that run right there,” Nola said. “Manny makes a not-routine play, at all, hard-hit ball to him. He makes the play look easy.”
He didn’t mention his own defensive highlight, gunning down Mookie Betts on an attempted steal early in the game after a regular season in which Nola had one of the worst caught-stealing percentages in baseball.
But the consensus, from Machado, Soto, Cronenworth and Melvin for the key moment was the pitching performance by 31-year-old journeyman rookie reliever Robert Suárez. Specifically, the strikeout followed by a double play he induced, with a little help from the infielders behind him, to bail out Darvish’s start and escape a two-on, no-out jam in the sixth inning.
“That was the play of the game,” Melvin said.
“I think if they come across or even score one, I think the game changes big-time. He was able to put that stop to it,” Machado said.
For what it's worth, they're right. That double play to end the sixth was the single-biggest swing in win probability added over the course of a game that saw the expected victor change directions nearly every inning.
The right answer, but certainly not the only one. There was the successful deke by Soto on a fly ball by Max Muncy that he couldn’t catch but pretended he would to keep the runners confused. If the game had gone the other way, the pivotal moment might have been Brusdar Graterol’s slick fielding in his own defense to get Wil Myers at the plate after Trent Grisham tried to bunt for a single. Or any of the home runs by Freddie Freeman, Muncy or Justin Turner. Perhaps the weirdest part is that Clatyon Kershaw’s first start of the postseason — and first since 2020 after missing last year’s playoff run — was among the least-remarkable performances of the game, for better or for worse. Go figure.
Unbiased observers would likely say the most memorable moment of the night had nothing to do with baseball at all. Giving the whole thing the kind of real-time viral quality that makes for memorable monikers — the Goose Game? Fowl Play? Fowl Ball? The Dawning of a Duck Dynasty? Gander-gate? — a bird of some kind briefly disrupted play in the eighth inning, flapping around the field like an unsubtle reminder of the perpetual possibility to see something new every time you go to the ballpark or turn on the TV.
Which is exactly why we do it.