Padres vs. Dodgers: Six things to know as NL West rivals meet for first series of 2021 MLB season

The baseball world this weekend should be fixed on the West Coast, as two of the best teams in baseball are set to do battle for the first time this season. The defending World Series champion Dodgers, who are the eight-time defending champs of the NL West, are set to square off against the Padres in San Diego for a three-game series. 

After having the second-best record in the NL last season, the Padres currently sit at 9-5. It’s a record that would be good for first place in a few divisions, but in the NL West, it’s only good for being 2 1/2 games behind the 11-2 Dodgers. Still, with a three-game series on tap, they have a chance to make a dent in that or even take over first for themselves.

Here are some things to know about this exciting series. 

1. Dodgers are the monsters we thought they were

It’s only been 13 games, but the Dodgers are 11-2 with a +34 run differential. They lost on Opening Day in a weird and fluky game in Coors Field and blew a ninth-inning lead and lost in extras on April 7. That’s it. They are winning pitchers’ duels, slugfests, in blowouts, in close games, in comebacks … yep. Pretty much every which way. Thursday night, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts sat his two best players (Mookie Betts and Corey Seager) and didn’t bother with using his top back-end relievers and they still won. That’s how good and deep they are. 

We’ve seen these kinds of insane starts on occasion in recent seasons. Remember the 2018 Red Sox were 17-2, the 2016 Cubs were 25-6 and the 2017 Astros were 42-16. It’s worth noting that all three of those teams slowed down a bit and had some stretches or pretty bad baseball. It can strike at any time. It’s also worth noting that all three of those teams won the World Series. 

This is the obvious best team in baseball. Of course, as baseball fans know, that doesn’t mean they are going to win this series. 

2. Padres have been good, too

Though the Padres haven’t been nearly as impressive as the Dodgers, they’ve performed very well overall. Somehow they lost twice to the Pirates, but otherwise they’ve been every bit the upstart contender many believed they would be. They sit toward the top of the league in several important offensive categories and lead the NL with a 2.38 staff ERA. The bullpen has been particularly stellar, sporting a 1.94 ERA and 0.99 WHIP with 71 strikeouts in 60 1/3 innings. 

And yet, with a series loss to the Giants and a split with the Pirates, it seems like the Padres still haven’t hit their stride. 

Part of that is just ordinary “it’s baseball” type stuff, but they also haven’t been full strength all year. The rotation hasn’t had one of its best arms (Dinelson Lamet) and the lineup hasn’t yet had Fernando Tatis (we’ll get to him) and Trent Grisham together yet. Since his return, Grisham is hitting .333/.429/.750 in six games. Catcher Austin Nola remains out as well. 

3. Pitching matchups are tasty

Just in case anyone doesn’t think the Dodgers are taking the threat of the Padres seriously, take note of the Dodgers sitting Betts and Seager on Thursday while also refusing to use their late-inning aces Kenley Jansen, Blake Treinen and Corey Knebel. They also re-configured their rotation to make sure their top three pitchers faced the Padres this weekend. Here are the matchups: 

Weathers is only 21 years old and is making his first career start. The son of former journeyman reliever, David, was the Padres’ first-round pick out of high school in 2018. He isn’t stretched out (he threw 38 pitches on April 3, 11 on April 7 and 31 on April 10), so don’t expect a deep outing and instead heavy bullpen involvement. 

Both Kershaw and Darvish have been excellent since rocky Opening Day starts and a duel is the most likely outcome for Saturday. 

Sunday matches up a pair of Cy Young winners. Snell is coming off a disastrous outing in which he couldn’t get out of the first inning against the lowly Pirates. Of course, let’s also keep in mind the last time Snell saw these Dodgers, he stifled them in Game 6 of the World Series before the Rays controversially pulled him and blew the lead. 

Collectively, there’s so much talent in all three matchups. Things favor the Dodgers, but no one rooting for the Padres should be intimidated here. 

4. Tatis returns? 

The Padres are missing one of their most important players, with starting pitcher Dinelson Lamet still working his way back from an elbow injury. He had a 70-pitch outing at the alternate training site on Thursday and could be ready to return next week. If everything was right, he’d be taking the ball instead of Weathers on Friday. This is to say, the Padres are not at full strength. 

They could, however, get a huge piece back. It looks like Fernando Tatis, Jr. is set to be activated off the injured list in time for Friday’s game. His shoulder injury looked pretty serious just 10 days ago, but we interviewed an orthopedic surgeon who said “it is not out of the question that a short IL stint could get him better,” and that “most first-time shoulder subluxations are treated non-surgically and heal, at least at first.” Tatis has been taking batting practice and fielding grounders for several days and has looked pretty healthy in doing so. 

In 148 career games, he’s hitting .297/.371/.575 (153 OPS+) with 24 doubles, eight triples, 40 homers, 99 RBI, 115 runs, 27 steals and 6.9 WAR. He turned 22 years old in January. It’s not just the numbers, either. Tatis brings an energy to the team that just makes them feel different when he’s around. 

Former Marlins president David Samson discussed Tatis’ return on the latest Nothing Personal with David Samson. Listen below:

5. Lingering bad blood? 

First off, we have to keep in mind the players are not oblivious here. The Padres players all know the Dodgers are the champs and the best team in baseball. They all want to slay the beast. The Dodgers know the Padres are a tough opponent and want to make a statement. The intensity would already be high, in light of this. 

On top of that, we add in a few incidents from last year. Remember this Grisham home run? 

Yeah, the Dodgers didn’t care for that. Or this, apparently: 

Later that game, Cody Bellinger robbed Tatis of a would-be go-ahead home run and Dodgers reliever Brusdar Graterol threw his hat and glove in celebration before blowing a kiss to Machado and, well, that didn’t go over well with the Padres

You know who wins when two sides are intense and don’t like each other? The rest of us! Bring it on, boys. 

6. Only the first chapter

No matter what goes down this weekend, the narrative will be that one of the two teams made some sort of statement. It’s entirely possible that’s the case, especially if one team sweeps the other. These three games count just as much as the last three times these two teams face off this year. We do need to keep in mind, however, that there are 19 head-to-head matchups this whole season, which means this weekend only accounts for 15.8 percent of the season series. 

These games are absolutely important — otherwise why would I be previewing this series and only this series for the weekend? — but let’s not crown the series winner or anything. It’s the first battle of what could be a season-long war. 

Now let’s settle in and have some fun watching this thing. 

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