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Elliott: With NLDS upset, Padres show they’ve closed gap on Dodgers, become rivals

This was the day the Padres and Dodgers truly became rivals, the moment the feisty little brother rose up and embarrassed the glamorous big brother with a display of heart and persistence that no amount of money can buy and no manager can teach.

While thousands of Padres fans screamed themselves hoarse and waved rally towels in a swirl of golden glee at Petco Park, the Padres rallied for five runs in a madcap seventh inning Saturday and held on for a 5-3 victory over the Dodgers to win the National League Division Series in four stunning games. The Padres strafed Dodger relievers Tommy Kahnle and Yency Almonte, never afraid of a team that had won 111 games during the regular season and had dominated them during the season and for most of their history.

“Whatever happens in the regular season doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you win 111 games. It doesn’t matter if you win 88 games,” Justin Turner said as players hugged each other and staff members for possibly the last time this season. “If you get in the playoffs it’s about, in a short series, it’s about winning three games, and they accomplished that.”

The Padres will go on to the NL Championship Series against the Philadelphia Phillies while the Dodgers will go home and wonder where they went wrong. Was it in not getting another top-notch starter or closer before the trade deadline? In not being quicker to recognize the fading skills of Cody Bellinger? Because of manager Dave Roberts’ many debatable decisions in deploying his bench and bullpen?

All of the above contributed to their downfall to some extent. They’ll have plenty of time to analyze that while the Padres move on, enjoying their status as the top dog in a rivalry that was born during this series.

“You’ve got to give a lot of credit to the Padres. They played really well. They had great at-bats the whole series and made big pitches when they had to and they played better than us,” said pitcher Clayton Kershaw, who added that he thinks he wants to play again next season. “It’s hard to admit sometimes, but that’s the truth of it. They just beat us.”

The Dodgers and Padres became Californians a little more than a decade apart. The Dodgers arrived first, breaking the hearts of Brooklynites by moving to Los Angeles before the 1958 season. The Padres were launched as an expansion team in 1969. Because they’re neighbors — at least in California’s car culture — and because they’re in the same division in the National League, it would be easy to assume they’d be natural rivals.

That hasn’t been true, because the high-spending Dodgers have largely dominated through the years.

The teams were opponents in 2020 in the NL Division Series, which was played in the COVID-19-resistant bubble set up in Arlington, Texas. There were no fans to bring noise and life to the games. The Dodgers flicked away the Padres like a pesky mosquito, outscoring them 23-9 in a three-game sweep.

That gap has closed. Their NLDS this year was dramatic, tense, and full of decisions that begged for second-guessing — everything postseason baseball should be. Having fans in the stands transformed games into the kind of communal experiences COVID had made impossible for two years, games where you might not know the people sitting in your row when you arrive but consider them family by the time you leave.

Fans in Los Angeles turned Dodger Stadium into a living, breathing blue sea during Games 1 and 2. Fans in San Diego turned the city’s downtown into a party, flooding into Petco Park wearing the team’s gold and brown colors, chanting “Beat LA,” and erupting in a raucous celebration when Josh Hader struck out Freddie Freeman for the final out. Players hugged each other, waved to the fans and danced in the rain that dampened the field but didn’t dampen fans’ spirits.

Because the Padres geo-restricted ticket sales to certain counties and areas, there were few blue-clad Dodger fans in Petco Park for Games 3 and 4. For the Padres, who had last welcomed a crowd to a home playoff game in 2006, owning their own crowd was a happy novelty.

The San Diego Padres and their fans at Petco Park celebrate a 5-3 win over the Dodgers in Game 4 of the NLDS that clinched the series upset.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

“Yeah, usually during the regular season, when you play Dodgers at home, I would see like half of the blue on the crowd,” Padres shortstop Ha-Seong Kim said before Saturday’s game. “But [Friday] night, when I see all the packed house with the yellow towels waving, it gave me chills, and it gave me very-proud-to-be-a-Padre moment.”

The Padres, led by majority owner Peter Seidler — grandson of former Dodger owner Walter O’Malley and nephew of Peter O’Malley, Walter’s son and successor — don’t see themselves as a small-market team anymore. They spent big money on Fernando Tatis, Jr. (who was injured this season and later suspended 80 games for using a banned performance-enhancing drug), Manny Machado, and again to acquire Juan Soto, the 2020 NL batting champion and a two-time All-Star, from Washington just before this year’s trade deadline. Soto’s run-scoring single in the seventh inning Saturday tied the score at 3-3.

They no longer consider themselves as the scruffy little brother to the mighty Dodgers. They backed that up by playing like worthy rivals in stifling the Dodgers’ offense over the first three games and on Saturday coming up with the big inning the Dodgers could never muster.

Retired pitcher Jake Peavy, who won the Cy Young Award in 2007 during his eight-season stay in San Diego, felt the excitement here when he arrived in town to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before Game 4. He called San Diego “a major player, major market, major fan base,” because of the owners’ commitment to excellence.

“I think it’s about time that we start talking about San Diego as a sports town,” he said. “We’ve lost the Chargers. This is the only game in town. The Padre fans are absolutely showing out, from Del Mar on down. I’ve been everywhere since I’ve been here the last few days. It feels good. It feels electric.”

It felt like a rivalry, with the Padres on top for now and the once-mighty Dodgers not so mighty anymore.

“Our goal every year is to win a World Series in October,” Chris Taylor said. “It’s not to win 111 games or win our division or win the most games. It’s to win the last game of the year and we didn’t do that, and it sucks.”

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