The Dodgers and Padres heard the hype, and they delivered

If three games in mid-April could constitute an all-time classic series, this one did.

“Spitballing” is a column by Nathan Ackerman about Major League Baseball.

If all the baseball content you consumed in the weeks leading up to MLB Opening Day was from national media, you’d have thought that the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres were quite literally the only two teams in the entire sport. You might have surmised that every other team opted out of the season to let the two NL West rivals go at it while they sat back and munched on popcorn.

Frankly, it was annoying.

But the way the first series between the two teams played out — dubbed the first three of 19 (maybe more) “World Series” games between the two squads — well, I still won’t validate that perspective, but I’ll let it slide. Because the three-game set this past weekend at Petco Park was everything anyone could have possibly asked for, and then some, and then some more.

It started on Friday, when the Padres announced that budding superstar Fernando Tatis Jr. was returning to the lineup just 11 days after partially dislocating his shoulder on a swing April 5.

Would the Padres have rushed their 22-year-old shortstop back in the first month of his 14-year (!) contract if he wasn’t fully healthy? No. Would they have felt compelled to wait an extra day or two or three if they weren’t taking on the Dodgers, who swept them en route to a World Series championship last year and whose fanbase universally refers to their team as “little brother?” You be the judge.

So, poetically and inevitably, Tatis went yard in his third at bat, putting San Diego ahead 2-1 in the fifth.

It was the first “moment” in a game that featured a sixth-inning comeback and lead by Los Angeles, an eighth-inning equalizer by San Diego, the Dodgers pulling ahead in the top of the ninth, San Diego tying it up down to its last strike in the bottom, each team walking the tightrope by stranding the automatic runner on second in each of the first two extra innings, the benches clearing after a hit by pitch in the 10th and the Dodgers reminding everyone that they still run these parts by scoring five times in the 12th inning to win.

That was just Act One.

After a brief intermission — Game 1 approached five hours in duration, so “brief” is no jest — Act Two gave baseball traditionalists a proverbial five-course meal and topped it off with a dessert of heart-stopping dramatics.

The Clayton Kershaw vs. Yu Darvish starting pitching matchup lived up to its billing, with the former going six scoreless and the latter surrendering one run over seven frames. An inning after Kershaw and Padres first baseman Jurickson Profar got into a cross-diamond shouting match for what Kershaw called a “bullsh*t swing” on a non-catcher’s-interference, Kershaw enacted his revenge by cracking the scoreboard with an eight-pitch, bases-loaded walk that should make you cringe at merely the thought of a universal designated hitter.

That was the only run until the ninth, when Justin Turner homered to make the Dodgers’ lead 2-0, but the drama was far from over. With runners on second and third and two outs in bottom nine, Tommy Pham lined a would-be game-tying single into right center field that instead landed in the palm of an outstretched Mookie Betts’ glove, breaking both the Padres’ hearts as well as mine, considering the fact that I missed it because Trader Joe’s was closing soon and my fridge was empty. Pain.

In Act Three — another tremendous pitching matchup, this time Trevor Bauer vs. Blake Snell, San Diego tied it in the seventh and scored thrice with two outs in the eighth for a 5-2 victory. It was the least dramatic ballgame of the three in about the same way that Kourtney is the least wealthy Kardashian sister (point: they’re all really wealthy).

In the grand scheme of the universe, the three-game series probably won’t mean a whole lot. The early returns of the 2021 season are an indication of how things are likely to go this year: The Padres will be good, but let’s be honest — the Dodgers will have put the division away by mid-August because, well, they might be from another planet.

Seriously. They’re on pace to win one hundred twenty-four games. That would beat the previous record, held by the 2001 Seattle Mariners, by a whopping eight games.

That won’t happen. But setting the record at all? I might be shocked if they don’t.

Still, what the Padres showed us in Sunday’s Game 3 shouldn’t be taken lightly. Last year, the teams were the two best in the National League, but when it came postseason time, the Dodgers showed who’s boss, sweeping San Diego in the NLDS with relative ease. In Sunday’s victory, the Padres showed that they’ll be no cakewalk this time around. They showed they can hang with “big brother” — at least, probably more than anyone else in the league can.

They demonstrated this not only in the third act but in the first two as well, each of which they nearly won to jump out in front of the regular season’s World Series. And along with it, all weekend, both teams brought all the excitement, flare and vitriol that we came to expect — and then some.

And we get to see it 16 more times. Sixteen more battles between the flashy up-and-comers, the new kids on the block, the ones you can’t possibly root against, and the guys who have been there before — in fact, who were there just last year — who don’t care that they’re hated, who invite it, who demand you prove that you’re worthy of being mentioned in the same paragraph. Once annoyed by this new rivalry’s dominance of the national headlines, I, sheepishly, admit that I cannot wait for the next of those 16, whenever they might be.

Wait, what’s that? There’s four more this weekend?

Bring it on.

“Spitballing” runs every Tuesday.