How Juan Soto, Josh Hader and more helped the Padres finally beat the Dodgers

SAN DIEGO — The players converged to form a random circle in the middle of the San Diego Padres clubhouse, at times hopping to hip-hop while spurting champagne. Peter Seidler, the owner, stood off to one side, close enough to witness the madness but far enough away to be spared. Ten years ago, Seidler, the grandson of acclaimed Los Angeles Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley, bought this franchise with inflated expectations: the goal of the Padres taking over both their city and their division.

Saturday night — punctuated by the 5-3 win that eliminated the mighty Dodgers in Game 4 of the National League Division Series — was the manifestation of that vision.

All they had to do to make it happen was risk everything.

Seidler pointed to Manny Machado, who was shirtless and drenched in alcohol at the time.

“He was the big chip,” Seidler said. “And now it’s a place where all players want to play.”

In February 2019, the Padres signed Machado to a $300 million deal that shocked the industry and forever changed perceptions of their franchise. While the Padres’ offense languished for most of the past summer, it was Machado who kept them afloat by playing almost daily and producing like an MVP. His performance helped propel them back into the postseason, and when they got there, it was their two boldest trade entrants that propelled them up.

Probably the biggest midseason acquisition in baseball history, Juan Soto scored the deciding hit and later scored in the seventh inning with five runs that sparked an epic comeback.

Josh Hader, who had arrived in another blockbuster trade two days earlier, completed it in the ninth, sending the Padres into the NL Championship Series for the first time since 1998.

“They’re phenomenal players,” said AJ Preller, president of the Padres’ baseball operations. “That’s why, honestly, we did the trade. It’s pretty simple – they’re the best in the world at what they do. If you want to beat a team like that, you need guys who are the best in the game. “

No man embodies the audacity of these Padres better than Preller, who is widely regarded as the most hyper-aggressive manager in the sport, for better or for worse. When he first joined the Padres in 2014, Preller went all-in with expensive veterans. It didn’t work, he sold parts, quickly rebuilt the farm system – and used those assets to try again.

The Machado deal was followed by a series of trades that outfitted the starting rotation with names like Yu Darvish, Blake Snell, Mike Clevinger, Joe Musgrove and Sean Manaea. The team was scheduled to face the Dodgers in 2021, and for a while it did. A second-half collapse caused them to miss the playoffs entirely, but paved the way for the hiring of Bob Melvin, one of the sport’s most respected managers. Finally, an underperforming start to the 2022 season led to the moves that ultimately propelled the Padres over the top.

Last year’s meltdown focused on activity around the trade deadline, as Preller spoke with Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, among others, about the possibility of combining Max Scherzer and Trea Turner in one package, and then watched as this one did package went to the Dodgers. The Padres didn’t do much more and soon faded away. Preller didn’t want to be absent this year either. On July 31, he sent his closer, Taylor Rogers, and three others to the Milwaukee Brewers for Hader, then sent all of his best young players – including Robert Hassell, CJ Abrams and MacKenzie Gore – to the Nationals for Soto and the hitter Josh Bell on August 2nd.

It took two months for these steps to really work.

Upon arriving in San Diego, Hader struggled so much that he was removed as the final boss, only to find his form near the end of the regular season. So far in October he has shown his usual dominance. Soto lacked his prototypical power for most of August and September, but now he’s a major threat again.

“With Juan, it’s not about whether he starts, but when,” said Preller. “He’s got some big hits on this show, big hits tonight. He’s that guy.”

Soto, the 23-year-old fielder who has already drawn comparisons to Ted Williams, had a .388 on-base percentage in 52 regular-season games with the Padres but just .390, 43 points below this year’s major league average. He then had four hits in Games 2 and 3 of the Padres’ wild card series against the New York Mets. And though his NLDS (3-for-16) numbers didn’t jump out, he produced eight batted balls that exceeded 100 mph, which doesn’t include his 95 mph single in the seventh inning on Saturday.

“It was a really important moment, a close moment and I just wanted to come through for this team,” said Soto in Spanish. “I’m trying to give them everything I have and see how far we can take that.”

As much as Soto lining up in front of Machado changes the Padres’ lineup prospects, Hader, dominating the ninth inning, changes the momentum of their bullpen.

Hader, a four-time All-Star, gave up 22 carries in a nine-inning stretch from July 13 to August 28, an unimaginable dip for one of the sport’s most dominant assists. Towards the end of this stretch, the Padres relegated Hader to low-leverage work. But then he started getting right again. The bad mechanical habits he picked up towards the end of his tenure with the Brewers were eventually corrected. And in the end, as the Padres fine-tuned their handling of him and figured out his new best practices, he only allowed one undeserved run and five baserunners in his last 10 regular-season appearances. He has served 4 1/3 scoreless innings in the playoffs so far.

“It’s the worst failure I’ve ever had, but you can’t give up,” said Hader. “You can’t just turn around and say, ‘Oh, well, that’s it.’ You can’t. We play this game way too hard, we play it way too much to just give up. It’s made me a better player because mentally I know that if you can get through this, you can get through anything You just have to keep believing in what you’re doing.”

Saturday night was a high point for Seidler, who famously called the Dodgers “the dragon on the freeway we’re trying to kill.” His franchise defeated the dragon – thanks to the strength of the stars that were brought in and in front of the eyes of the fans who gathered around them.

Petco Park typically attracts so many Dodgers fans that it is unofficially named Dodger Stadium South. But that was different on Friday and Saturday. The team geographically restricted the primary ticket market to maximize the number of Padres fans in attendance, limit sales to fans residing in the San Diego area, and generate unprecedented energy at Petco Park. Bright yellow towels adorned the baseball field; “Beat LA” chants filled the air; fake geese dotted the stands. It began to rain heavily in the late innings, but no one went.

Seidler was asked if he could ever have imagined this kind of energy in this city.

“No,” he said. “I could dream all sorts of things, but what happened yesterday and today was remarkable.

“I think every single fan is still in the building and it’s been half an hour since we won. And they’re wet and they’re cold, but they love this group of players and the players love the fans.” How Juan Soto, Josh Hader and more helped the Padres finally beat the Dodgers

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