After experiencing the elusive thrill of a close game Wednesday at Globe Life Field, the plainly invincible Los Angeles Dodgers seemed to go out of their way the following evening in Game 3 to contrive a challenge for themselves.
Up 2-0 in their best-of-five showdown with the San Diego Padres, with two immensely talented starters - Tony Gonsolin and Julio Urias - fully rested, the Dodgers really didn't need to use an "opener" to negotiate their way through the first couple of innings. They did, though, and did so both ineffectively and inelegantly: left-handed reliever Adam Kolarek, tasked with handling the second inning after Dustin May tossed a scoreless first, ended up walking in a run - following an inexplicable intentional free pass - before serving up a bases-loaded single and being lifted for Urias. It was an ugly sequence of events, as well as an unbecoming one, and the Dodgers' curious gambit gave the Padres an early 2-1 lead.
Still, the Dodgers ended up winning by nine runs, completing the three-game sweep and securing a spot in the National League Championship Series for the fourth time in the last five seasons. The Dodgers have yet to lose a game this postseason. They have yet to even look vulnerable.
It isn't revisionism to say the Padres had no chance against the Dodgers, nor is it an indictment against them. Though they managed to outlast the St. Louis Cardinals in the wild-card round with their two best pitchers unavailable, providing their long-suffering fanbase a taste of catharsis, the Padres were never going to be able to beat the Dodgers absent de facto ace Dinelson Lamet and with their nominal ace, Mike Clevinger, still compromised, as well. (Clevinger lasted only one-plus inning in Game 1, throwing 24 pitches before leaving the contest with renewed discomfort in his right arm.) Even were they at full strength, however, the Padres likely would've been overmatched.
To be sure, the Padres are a marvelous team, an exciting team for which the truncated 2020 season marked the beginning of a new epoch. After a veritable eternity of losing, which eventually morphed into rebuilding, the Padres were actually good this year: led by the incomparable Fernando Tatis Jr., Manny Machado, and a bevy of other young studs, the Padres finished in the top five in the majors in just about every meaningful statistic during the regular season. By run differential, moreover, they were baseball's second-best team this year, and few franchises can claim to have a future as bright.
Still, as dynastic as they look, and as commendable as general manager A.J. Preller's efforts at the trade deadline were, the talent gap between them and Los Angeles remains stark: the Dodgers bested them (and everyone else) in pretty much every area, leading the majors in runs per game, homers, and WRC+ (despite getting subpar production from Max Muncy and reigning National League MVP Cody Bellinger), as well as ERA, WHIP, and runs allowed per game. Ultimately, to dispatch their vaunted division rival in the best-of-five LDS, the Padres needed all of their key players healthy, first and foremost, and needed to play their best baseball. Neither of those things happened.
Forgetting, for a moment, the injuries to Clevinger and Lamet, the Padres' potent lineup did bupkis all series, getting held to a paltry .182/.264./283 line by Los Angeles' obnoxiously deep staff while going just 2-for-15 (.133) with runners in scoring position. (Yes, they did have a potentially game-changing home run stolen away by Bellinger in Game 2.)
Meanwhile, they also made too many mistakes in the field, most notably a critical misplay by second baseman Jake Cronenworth and/or first baseman Eric Hosmer in the fifth inning of Game 1 that allowed the Dodgers to erase a one-run deficit. Then, in the third inning of Game 3, an ill-advised throw from Tatis after a sensational diving stab - along with a poor effort from Hosmer on the receiving end at first - keyed a five-run onslaught for the Dodgers.
Whether those two miscues were ultimately instrumental in the sweep, however, is debatable seeing as the Padres - absent their top two arms - simply couldn't contain Los Angeles' mighty offense: the Dodgers hit just one home run in the series, which took place in baseball's most long-ball-suppressing stadium, but they wore down San Diego's staff with relentlessly high-quality plate appearances, posting a remarkable .409 on-base percentage for the series and drawing nearly as many walks (20) as they had strikeouts (22).
In total, the Dodgers outscored the Padres 23-9 and have, at least for now, quieted any talk of an impending coup in the NL West. As resounding as the three-game sweep was, however, it didn't diminish the Padres' superb season one iota. Or at least it shouldn't. There's simply no shame in losing to these Dodgers, who seemingly need to hamstring themselves right now to feel the rush of competition.
The Atlanta Braves will present a far greater challenge than did the decimated Padres or the lowly Milwaukee Brewers, who finished the regular season with a sub-.500 record. Like the Dodgers, the Braves remain undefeated this postseason, and they're only appreciably worse than Los Angeles in one area: starting pitching depth. That disparity may actually factor heavily into a best-of-seven series with no rest days, but the Braves are nevertheless a more formidable opponent than the Dodgers have seen this postseason.
Ultimately, though, even as their toughest matchup looms and with their recent October track record discrediting them, it's impossible not to have the utmost faith in the Dodgers. Since the moment they acquired Mookie Betts in February, they've seemed destined to snap their World Series drought in 2020, and the effortlessness with which they've navigated October thus far has made it seem only more inevitable.
Jonah Birenbaum is theScore's senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.