Padres rise in NL Wild Card race

Jake Rill

By Jake Rill

PHOENIX — Late Thursday night, Manny Machado stood in front of his locker in a dead-silent clubhouse and struggled to explain the Padres’ recent woes. He didn’t know why the team was scuffling, but he knew the urgency of the matter with the regular season winding down.

A players meeting took place Friday to get everybody refocused. Guys then began getting into the dugout earlier before games, with more of them coming out to stand together on the field for the national anthem. They’re more locked in amid their postseason push.

But there’s no doubt what the biggest change has been over the past three days:

Soto homered as part of his first three-hit game as a Padre on Sunday afternoon at Chase Field, helping power San Diego to a 6-1 win over Arizona. After dropping the opener on Thursday — a shutout loss that was one of the season’s low points, if not the lowest — the Friars bounced back and won three straight to take the series in impressive fashion.

“It feels way different now. It feels like we can beat anybody,” Soto said. “We faced the best pitchers that that team has, and we beat them easy. That tells you a lot.”

San Diego capitalized on losses by Philadelphia and Milwaukee to move up the National League Wild Card standings. The Padres are now in the second spot — a half-game ahead of the Phillies (who lost to the Braves) and 2 1/2 games up on the Brewers (who lost to the Yankees).

It was the first time since Sept. 2 that the Friars won on a day that the Phils and Crew both lost.

“I can’t say enough about how these guys responded and played three really crisp games after a tough start,” manager Bob Melvin said. “There’s just a little bit more sense of urgency from the first pitch of the game on, and I think that’s what we were trying to accomplish.”

It couldn’t have happened without Soto. When he came to the plate in the fifth inning on Friday, he was mired in a 1-for-31 slump. He hadn’t recorded an extra-base hit since homering on Aug. 28. The lack of production was a huge surprise and far from what San Diego expected when it landed the 23-year-old star outfielder in a blockbuster deal with Washington ahead of the Trade Deadline.

Soto notched two hits Friday — including an eighth-inning two-run double — before breaking through in a big way on Sunday. He walked in the first, blasted a solo home run in the fifth, singled in the eighth and knocked in a run with a double in the ninth.

“If he heats up — which we all expect him to — this is going to be a much more difficult lineup to navigate,” Melvin said of Soto, who ended a 17-game homer drought that was one shy of his career long.

Soto didn’t beat the D-backs alone. Machado also went deep, hitting a two-run blast in the first inning off Ryne Nelson — the first runs the right-hander allowed in three career starts. It ensured the Arizona rookie wouldn’t have a repeat performance vs. the Padres after blanking them for seven innings in his MLB debut on Sept. 5.

It marked the third time Machado and Soto homered in the same game as San Diego teammates.

Meanwhile, the D-backs’ bats were stifled by Yu Darvish, who tossed six scoreless innings and was dominant early. The right-hander retired the first 13 batters of the game, escaped a bases-loaded jam in the fifth unscathed and turned in another masterful outing against Arizona.

In five starts vs. the D-backs this season, Darvish is 4-0 with a 1.97 ERA and 31 strikeouts.

“At this point in time, winning games is the most important thing,” Darvish said through an interpreter. “Just glad to be able to do that for the team.”

Soto is enjoying it, too, as he hadn’t been in a pennant race since winning the World Series with the Nationals in 2019. Now, he wants to help his new teammates experience that.

“It feels amazing because you know every game, every swing, every at-bat matters in these moments,” Soto said. “That’s what you play for. Everybody plays to be in October and be in a playoff race.”

And if Soto keeps this up, maybe the Padres could even be playing into November.

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