Friday’s game lasted five hours, spanned 12 innings and included 17 pitchers.
Saturday’s game came down to a centimeter.
That, pretty much, was the distance between Petco Park’s outfield grass and the baseball that bulged out of Mookie Betts‘ glove, just barely secure enough to place another exclamation mark on an exhilarating matchup between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres.
It was the bottom of the ninth, there were two outs, the Dodgers led by two, the Padres had two runners in scoring position, and both teams had navigated through another April game with the nail-biting intensity of October. Betts, playing center field for the injured Cody Bellinger, broke to his left, sprinted seven steps and launched himself towards Tommy Pham‘s sinking line drive. If it falls, the game is at least tied. Give Pham’s speed, perhaps the Padres win on an inside-the-park home run.
Betts secured it on the heel of his glove, turning in a play with a 10% catch probability in the Dodgers’ 2-0 victory. He lifted himself up on both knees, patted his chest three times and roared towards a crowd that had mostly fallen silent. Moments later, in an on-field interview with the Dodgers’ broadcast affiliate, Betts said he “kind of blacked out.”
Mookie Betts dives to end the game and secure the Dodgers’ win over the Padres.
It’s been that kind of series.
“It’s different,” Padres starter Yu Darvish, who allowed just the one run through seven dominant innings, said through his interpreter. “I saw it yesterday, as well.”
Friday’s madness spilled into Saturday’s classic pitcher’s duel between Darvish and Clayton Kershaw, which produced only one run through the first eight innings — on a bases-loaded walk by Kershaw, of all people — and ended with brilliant defense, the antithesis of the sloppiness from 24 hours earlier.
The Dodgers have won eight in a row, continue to lead the majors in winning percentage and have won 13 of their first 15 games for only the second time in the last 100 years.
They have elevated themselves to match the intensity of a Padres team so noticeably eager to knock them off their perch atop the National League West, but they haven’t necessarily forced it. They have rested their ailing position players, guarded against over-using their relievers and talked about this series with the blandness one might expect for early-season baseball, even if the games have felt nothing like it.
“It’s April,” Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner said. “The thing about this club, and our team the last couple years, is we talk a lot about taking it one game at a time and worrying about today and doing everything we can to win a game today, and not worrying about what happened yesterday and not looking ahead to what’s coming tomorrow. I think a lot of teams talk about that, but this team is one of the best groups I’ve ever been around at actually executing that and not letting the moment get too big.”
Kershaw played catch with Darvish regularly over the last three months of the 2017 season, but he had never faced him — you know, as a hitter — until Saturday. He was retired on four pitches in his first plate appearance, then got into a 2-2 count in his second. It was the fifth inning, the bases were loaded with two outs, Darvish was three hitters removed from a developing perfect game — and so began one of the greatest sequences in Kershaw’s offensive career, a collection of four pitches that embodied the intensity, unpredictability and sheer randomness of this budding rivalry.
Slider out over the plate, tipped foul.
Cutter way low and away, tipped foul.
Cutter up and away, taken for a ball.
Cutter slightly away, taken for a ball.
Kershaw worked a walk — on a perfectly placed cutter that only tailed off the very edges of the strike zone — to bring in a run, only the second time doing so in a 14-year major league career. Until Turner unleashed a solo homer in the top of the ninth, it was the only run of the game. Ultimately, it was also the difference.
“Just trying to be annoying, really,” Kershaw said of his approach. “I wasn’t gonna get a hit off him, he’s got too good a stuff. It’s just trying to be a nuisance as best I can.”
The prior half-inning, Kershaw was screaming at Jurickson Profar — “That’s a bulls— swing!” he barked — for swinging so late that he caught his bat on Austin Barnes’ glove and was awarded first base on catcher’s interference. Kershaw later complained that Profar swung “straight down and backwards,” adding that it was “not a big league swing.”
Two innings later, Trent Grisham found himself on second base but didn’t accurately read the defense behind him and broke late on Manny Machado‘s sharp grounder through the infield, advancing only 90 feet. The next batter, Wil Myers, hit a 106 mph grounder that hit off the mound and landed in Chris Taylor’s glove for an inning-ending double play.
Kershaw, who contributed six scoreless frames and hasn’t allowed a run in 18 consecutive innings, couldn’t help but smile as he made his way back to the dugout.
Myers looked stunned.