Why the Dodgers-Padres turbo-charged rivalry is great for baseball

If you ask the Los Angeles Dodgers, they may deny that they have a rivalry with the San Diego Padres. The Dodgers, after all, have won the NL West for the last eight seasons while the San Diego Padres’ 2020 postseason appearance was their first since 2006. That was three presidents ago. However, their first two series this season have made it obvious that if the teams weren’t rivals before, they sure are now.

It was 16 April, the first regular-season game between the two teams in 2021, when Dodgers pitcher Dennis Santana hit Padres batter Jorge Mateo in extra innings, sparking a bench-clearing brawl. The Dodgers won the battle that day, battering the Padres not in a fight but where it really counts: on the scoreboard. They won 11-6 in the 12th inning thanks to a rally-starting Corey Seager home run. The Dodgers’ flair for the dramatic didn’t stop there. In their next game, Mookie Betts made a ridiculous game-saving catch to preserve a 2-0 LA lead. The prohibitive World Series favorites looked like they were in control.

Since then, however, the Padres have won four of the five games between the two clubs. The bad blood has become worse in the meantime. When San Diego’s Fernando Tatis Jr hit a home run against Trevor Bauer on 24 April, the third game of a thrilling and exhausting four-game series, he covered one of his eyes as he ran the bases, something which got under the skin of the other team.

Why? Well, Bauer, the reigning NL Cy Young winner, took to pitching with one eye closed during the preseason as part of his ongoing project to get people to pay attention to him. Opposing batters, as one can imagine, did not take kindly to this, particularly after Bauer ended up plunking Seattle Mariners third baseman Ty France. So when Tatis took him deep, he relished the opportunity to engage in some mockery.

In true “I’m not mad, this is funny” fashion, Bauer responded with a long video saying he didn’t have a problem with Tatis’s celebration. He then, however, accused Tatis of stealing signs. This led to the two having an exchange on Twitter the night before the series finale, where the Padres won 8-7. They won’t meet again until 21 June, and considering how much entertainment the two teams have already provided us, that’s a date fans should have circled on their calendars.

It’s a shame we have to wait that long. Healthy rivalries make sports more exciting and that is particularly true in MLB. In the NFL, for instance, every game has a playoff atmosphere due to the league’s short season. The leisurely pace of baseball, combined with the 162-game regular season, makes it impossible for teams to play at high intensity all the time. When one team has extra motivation to beat the other, it almost always makes for more entertaining games.

Thanks to MLB’s unbalanced schedule, this is particularly true with intra-divisional rivalries where teams, who already are battling each other for first place in the standings, face each other 19 times during the regular season. The teams get to know each other well, and we all know what familiarity breeds.

It’s no surprise that most of the league’s marquee rivalries are between teams that share a division: the New York Yankees v the Boston Red Sox; the St Louis Cardinals v the Chicago Cubs; the New York Mets and the Philadelphia Phillies; and, of course, the Dodgers against their traditional foe, the San Francisco Giants.

In comparison, Dodgers-Padres isn’t even worth a mention on the Wikipedia page of MLB rivalries. That’s probably because the Padres don’t have the most celebrated of histories. Since they began life as an expansion team in 1969, they have appeared in the World Series just twice, losing both times. Meanwhile, the Dodgers have won six championships since they relocated from Brooklyn (where they also won one, if you count that sort of thing).

The Padres know that if they want more respect, they will have to earn it on the field. Making it to the playoffs last year was a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, they ended up getting swept in the National League division series by, who else, the soon-to-be world champion Dodgers.

Undaunted, the Padres spent the offseason trying to build a team that could beat the Dodgers. First, the Padres traded for Blake Snell and Yu Darvish to boost their starting rotation. A few months later, after the Dodgers signed Bauer to a three-year contract, the Padres signed Tatis Jr to a 14-year, $340m contract extension. It was a mammoth deal, but it was a sign that they were serious about creating a team that could remain competitive for years.

Not only did these moves help both teams from a baseball perspective they also ensured that they would be two of the most fascinating teams of the season. The 22-year-old Tatis is an MVP caliber talent who could soon rival Betts as one of the best players in the game. Meanwhile, the talented-but-polarizing Bauer brings controversy everywhere he goes. It’s not a coincidence that these two players have emerged at the center of one of the league’s most intriguing storylines.

If that weren’t enough, there’s one more interesting wrinkle: if you glanced at the NL West standings this weekend, you would notice that the Giants, not the Dodgers or the Padres, sat on top of what must be the toughest division in baseball. Just because Dodgers-Padres is getting all the attention doesn’t mean that Dodgers-Giants has become any less heated.

The battle for the best division in baseball may end up being a three-team race featuring two of the league’s best rivalries. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, must be counting this as a positive development in a sport that has been struggling to keep fans these last few years.