Padres nab Wild Card: ‘Best moments are yet to come’

San Diego lands in postseason while still on the field against the White Sox

SAN DIEGO — Bob Melvin heard the roar from the top step of the first-base dugout. Josh Bell was readying himself to enter the batter’s box in the bottom of the seventh inning on Sunday afternoon. And then Bell stopped. He backed out and paused for a moment. The Petco Park crowd had erupted — first a low buzz, then a full-on outburst.

Melvin had an inkling why.

Two time zones away, the Brewers were playing the Marlins in a game that could push the Padres over the line, into the postseason for just the seventh time in franchise history. Back and forth those faraway clubs went. The Brewers tied it in the ninth. The Marlins took the lead. The Brewers tied it in the 10th. Melvin had enough.

“It was exhausting, it really was,” Melvin said afterward. “I told [pitching coach Ruben Niebla], ‘I’m done with this. I’m not watching the scoreboard anymore. It’s too hard to watch.’

“Then I heard the ovation from the crowd. And, obviously, you knew.”

Indeed, as of that moment, the Padres were postseason bound. And this time, the city got to celebrate right along with them. With Milwaukee’s loss on Sunday, San Diego secured a Wild Card spot in the National League — even before wrapping up a weekend series against the White Sox with a 2-1 loss.

It’s the Padres first trip to the playoffs in a full 162-game season since 2006 — and the first time they’ve gotten to celebrate a clinch in front of fans at Petco Park since ’05. Of course, they clinched at home in ’20, but amid a pandemic-shortened slate, they celebrated amongst themselves in an empty stadium.

“This,” said Manny Machado, “is a lot better.”

The Padres will play Game 1 of a three-game NL Wild Card Series on Friday — on the road against either the Braves, Mets or Cardinals.

“We’ve got 14 games to win to bring a championship,” Machado said. “That’s all that matters.”

But first, the Padres had some celebrating to do. When the game ended, the players moseyed out of their dugout into foul territory next to first base. The relievers from the bullpen greeted the rest of the team there, where they exchanged hugs and high-fives. They gathered for a group photo in front of the mound, while the Petco Park videoboard flashed, “Clinched,” in the background.

And then the party began.

Champagne. Light beer. A few “No-No Joe” Resident Double IPAs mixed in.

They drank some of it. But they sprayed most of it on their teammates, their coaches, their front office.

“It hasn’t been the easiest season,” said second baseman Jake Cronenworth. “But the way the group has come together, to fight through the ups and downs, to maintain what we’ve been doing all year and get to the point we are now, it’s pretty special.”

Nobody seemed to mind that the Padres had just lost their series finale to the White Sox — a loss that, really, only matters for the purpose of seeding and might, theoretically, create a more favorable path for San Diego.

“We got to the spot that we’ve been working toward,” said a drenched Machado, and dang it, if the Padres weren’t going to celebrate that fact.

The Padres know firsthand just how difficult getting to the playoffs can be. A year ago, they sat 17 games above .500 in early August, only to finish 79-83 — a collapse that chairman Peter Seidler deemed “once in a century.”

The team vowed not to make the same mistakes — and set about constructing a roster that wouldn’t. But the biggest change? Melvin in the manager’s chair.

It’s been a roller-coaster of a 2022 season. The Padres endured their share of struggles, particularly on offense. They overhauled their roster at the Trade Deadline. They essentially dealt with the loss of superstar shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. twice — first, at the start of the season when it was revealed he’d broken his left wrist, then again when, on the verge of returning, Tatis was suspended for 80 games after testing positive for a banned substance. Through it all, Melvin steered a steady ship.

“A lot of it has to do with Bob’s message every day, what he preached in Spring Training,” Cronenworth said. “And Manny being Manny helps a lot, as well.”

The Padres rode a deep pitching rotation and MVP-caliber exploits from Machado for much of the season. But the offense needed reinforcements – and they arrived at the Trade Deadline in the form of Juan Soto, Bell and Brandon Drury.

“It’s zero and zero now,” Melvin said. “You look at our team and how, maybe, we stack up against some other teams, I think we’re a pretty good playoff-caliber club, with what the roster’s going to look like. … Hopefully, our best moments are yet to come.”

Over the next three days, all that’s left to play for is seeding. If the Padres finish ahead of Philadelphia, they would make a trip east to either the Mets or Braves as the No. 5 seed. If they were to fall behind the Phillies, the Padres would face the NL Central-champion Cardinals.

“We’re in the dance,” said general manager A.J. Preller. “Now we’ve got to see what we can do.”

Ultimately, clinching with three days to spare might prove important, because it allows the Padres some time to set their playoff rotation. In a Wild Card Series, they’d presumably align Yu Darvish, Blake Snell and Joe Musgrove — probably in that order.

Musgrove eschewed goggles Sunday, opting only for sunglasses and the world’s smallest party hat. The San Diego native, holding multiple locally brewed IPAs, briefly paused to talk with reporters amid the euphoria. He did his best to put the celebrations in perspective.

“I want to be part of a team that brought a championship to this city,” Musgrove said. “This is one step along the way. But we’ve got some work to do still.

“So we’ll celebrate tonight, then get back at it tomorrow.”