A few minutes before 6 p.m. CT Monday, before they conducted their final workout at Globe Life Field in preparation for their National League Division Series against the San Diego Padres, Dodgers players formed a circle in right field.
Everyone turned toward the team’s two leaders: Justin Turner and Mookie Betts. Turner spoke first. Betts addressed the team next. Turner then offered the final words before the group dispersed to stretch and throw.
Behind them, one of the two oversized screens overlooking the outfield inside this $1.2-billion building showed the Houston Astros beating the Oakland Athletics at Dodger Stadium.
“Watching the A’s-Astros game,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said, “and just seeing those two clubs at our ballpark is sort of weird in a postseason setting.”
The image aptly encapsulated the 2020 Major League Baseball season, the oddities and hoops hundreds of people have jumped through to make sure a team is crowned World Series champion later this month.
The Dodgers are 11 wins away from earning that title for the first time in 32 years. Standing in their way from the next three is the best team they’ve played so far in 2020. The San Diego Padres finished with the second-best record in the National League, but they qualified as the No. 4 seed in this expanded playoff format because they didn’t win their division thanks to the Dodgers.
Game 1, scheduled for 6:38 p.m. PT Tuesday, will be the 11th meeting between the teams in two months, with the Dodgers winning six of the first 10. Walker Buehler will get the start for the Dodgers. The Padres will name their starter Tuesday morning after decisions on Mike Clevinger and Dinelson Lamet’s availabilities are made. Chris Paddack or Zach Davies would likely start if Clevinger (elbow) and Lamet (biceps) aren’t included on the Padres’ 28-man roster.
The Dodgers are not without their own rotation questions. The blister on Buehler’s right index finger, a problem that put him on the injured list twice during the regular season, remains an unknown. The blister limited Buehler to 73 pitches in four innings in Game 1 of the wild-card series against the Milwaukee Brewers.
“Same as it has been,” Buehler said when asked about the blister Monday. “Obviously, myself and the training staff just keep plugging away working on it.”
Buehler faced the Padres once this season, on Aug. 3. He allowed three runs in five innings and the Dodgers lost 5-4.
The Dodgers were tested by the Padres in ways they otherwise weren’t. The Padres approached the games as chances to prove they are a real contender. They badly wanted to beat the Dodgers. They played with an unusual intensity that reverberated in the empty ballparks.
“I feel like all the series we played during the regular season was playoff baseball,” Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. “It was great baseball all the way around.”
The Padres were the opponent the Dodgers, in some ways, needed to keep their foot on the gas en route to their eighth straight division title. Two meetings, both wins, could be pointed to as turning points.
The Dodgers entered the first, on Aug. 11 at Dodger Stadium, with an 11-7 record. They had lost three of four games, including the previous two nights against San Diego, before manufacturing runs in a 6-0 win. The next night, Betts was placed in the leadoff spot for good and hit three home runs. The Dodgers won seven in a row.
The second momentum-changing win over the Padres happened in San Diego in mid-September. The Dodgers had dropped five of eight games. They’d played sloppy the night before in a 7-2 loss to open the series in San Diego. They beat the Padres the next two days to start a five-game winning streak. They are 12-2 since.
Betts compared the loss in September to getting punched in the mouth.
“We were flat,” Betts said Monday. “It just seemed like they just kept coming at us the whole game. We never had an answer. There was really nothing we could do other than just sit there and take it. So, at that time, we just had a talk among ourselves and we were able to come back out and play the game that we always do.”
On Monday, the Dodgers had another talk, 1,500 miles away, inside the ballpark in which they envision hosting their first World Series victory since 1988. They weren’t going to wait until they took another punch. There’s no time for that in October.