Padres Miss Aces, Opportunities in Game 1 Loss To Cardinalson October 1, 2020 at 2:44 am

Padres Miss Aces, Opportunities in Game 1 Loss To Cardinals

In a perfect world for the San Diego Padres — or even a still-imperfect, slightly better world — Dinelson Lamet would have been on the mound in Game 1 of their Wild Card Series against the Cardinals. In that better world, Mike Clevinger would have been waiting in the wings for a Game 2. But that’s not the world that the Padres got. Instead, Lamet and Clevinger, both injured, were left off the series roster; Chris Paddack was the hastily-announced starter for the series opener. And without their two best pitchers, the Padres find themselves already staring down elimination after a grueling 7-4 loss in Game 1 that took nearly four hours and saw each team use more than six pitchers.

From the first batter of the game, the Cardinals lineup — which ranked 19th in wRC+ and is coming off one of the most brutal stretches of non-stop baseball that we’ve ever seen — was all over Paddack. It’s been a tough sophomore season for the 24-year-old, largely due to the ineffectiveness of his fastball: What was, in his rookie season, a strength of his repertoire has been a weakness in 2020, with decreased movement and poor command resulting in a lot of hard contact. Paddack was one of baseball’s hardest-hit pitchers this year, and today the damage against him started almost immediately. After a leadoff popup off the bat of Kolten Wong, five consecutive hits — single, home run, double, single, double — put the Cardinals ahead 3-0. A sacrifice fly made the score 4-0 before Kwang Hyun Kim had faced a single batter. Three out of those five hits had exit velocities above 100 mph, including the home run crushed off the bat of Paul Goldschmidt.

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But as we well know, the Padres have a formidable offense and are baseball’s best comeback team. Even after starting in a 4-0 hole, it never particularly seemed like the game was out of their reach. The bottom of the first began with a walk to Fernando Tatis Jr., a single absolutely ripped off the bat of Manny Machado, and a sacrifice fly from Eric Hosmer — immediately, a chunk cut out of the Cardinals’ lead. Kim, like Paddack, was making his first postseason start in the majors, though he had plenty of playoff experience over his long tenure with the SK Wyverns of the KBO; Kim, also like Paddack, was hit hard right off the bat. We were reminded how quickly the top of this Padres order can flip a deficit on its head. If their pitching could hold, it wasn’t hard to see the Padres erasing the Cardinals’ early lead.

And for a brief moment, it seemed like that reality was plausible. Paddack bounced back with a 1-2-3 top of the second, and the bottom of the frame opened with a scorched Jake Cronenworth triple that was nearly Jose Canseco’d off the glove of Harrison Bader at the outfield fence. A sacrifice fly immediately thereafter cut the Cardinals’ lead in half.

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That work was undone in the top of the third, unfolding almost exactly as the top of the first had: After retiring the first batter, Paddack gave up a string of hits. He would exit after one runner scored; Matt Strahm, his replacement, allowed one more inherited run to come across before recording the final two outs of the inning. Three singles in the bottom of the third added another run for the Padres, though they stranded two runners. San Diego knocked out Kim with two outs in the fourth, but Ryan Helsley ended the inning by retiring Tatis with a runner on.

What has to be frustrating for the Padres and their fans, the incredibly poorly-timed loss of Lamet and Clevinger aside, is that even when they were down 6-2 heading into the bottom of the third, their lineup had many opportunities to close the gap. They just never managed to convert those opportunities into more than one run at a time. The Padres’ bullpen parade — Strahm, Craig Stammen, Pierce Johnson, Emilio Pagan, Drew Pomeranz, Garrett Richards, and Trevor Rosenthal, in that order — managed to pitch out of jams and around relentless pressure from the Cardinals lineup. (Of the Cardinals starters, only Bader didn’t have a hit, and four players had multi-hit games, including three from Yadier Molina.) The Cardinals’ run total stayed stuck at six until the ninth inning; of those seven relievers, only Rosenthal allowed an earned run. St. Louis finished the game having left 12 runners on base.

The Padres lineup, meanwhile, created opportunities against the Cardinals bullpen only to squander them. Case in point: the bottom of the sixth, which began with a Tommy Pham double off of Helsley. He was immediately relieved by Genesis Cabrera, who just as quickly hit Cronenworth with his first pitch. On Cabrera’s second pitch, this one to Austin Nola, Pham took off for third, and the on-target throw from Molina squirted out of Tommy Edman‘s glove. Runners at the corners, nobody out, the tying run at the plate — a perfect opportunity for the Padres to close the gap.

And sure enough, on the next pitch, Nola lifted the ball into right — an easy run. But Cronenworth tried to advance to third on the play, and was thrown out on the basepaths, turning the sac fly into a double play. A runner in scoring position with one out became empty bases with two out; that the double play was followed by a walk and a single, bringing Tatis to the plate as the go-ahead run, made the baserunning error sting even more. The Cardinals brought in Giovanny Gallegos to face Tatis, and he struck him out. Just like that, a great chance for the Padres became — once again — a single run on the board, a lonely sacrifice fly.

As it turned out, that would be the final run the Padres put on the board. They stranded a runner in the seventh, and in the eighth, another baserunning miscue cost the Padres an out. Tatis again came to the plate with two runners on and two out, and again, he was retired. In the ninth, now down by four, the middle of the Padres lineup went one-two-three, with Bader making a nice running catch to record the final out.

The Cardinals, who entered this series with their exhausted offense as a significant weakness, have managed to hammer themselves to the precipice of an unlikely NLDS appearance. And the Padres, who slammed their way to their first postseason appearance in 5,105 days, might find themselves looking back, wondering what could have been. We’ll find out tomorrow, with Adam Wainwright facing off against Zach Davies.

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