Padres no longer ‘little brother’ to bitter NL West rival

PEORIA, Ariz. – The intimidation is gone. 

No more fear. 

Not even the slightest apprehension. 

The San Diego Padres, after being bullied since the day they were born, are convinced they are bigger, badder and better than their neighbors up north on the I-5. 

Yep, we’re talking about the Los Angeles Dodgers. 

The Padres stunned the Dodgers in the National League Division Series last October, 3 games to 1, finally overcoming their bitter rivals, and now believing there’s a new sheriff in the National League West. 

“We were the little brother to the Dodgers for so many years,’’ says Padre veteran pitcher Drew Pomeranz. “They always had their way with us. But you could see the shift coming, and then it finally came when we beat those guys in the playoffs. That was so huge for our organization.’’ 

Says veteran reliever Craig Stammen, the Padres’ longest-tenured player: “There were years we thought we were going to chase them down, and they kicked our butt. Well, we finally beat them on the big stage. It creates a different belief.’’ 

The toppling of the mighty Dodgers brought back vivid, and painful, memories for new Padres infielder/DH Matt Carpenter. He and Padres starter Michael Wacha were on that St. Louis Cardinals team that thoroughly dominated the Chicago Cubs since they were drafted by the organization, right up to the 2015 postseason when they lost to the Cubs in the NL Division Series. 

“Chicago was like our baby brother for 10 years,’’ Carpenter said, “and then suddenly it was, ‘Whoa! Baby brother is beating us up.’ 

“The very next year, they win the World Series. We didn’t even make the playoffs. Everything changed. 

“It can be the same thing here. This team reminds me of that Cubs team with all of that talent. The script is ready.’’ 

The Dodgers won a franchise-record 111 games last year – 22 more than the Padres –and have dominated the NL West, winning nine of the last 10 division titles with three pennants and a World Series title. 

And yet, you won’t find a soul in the Padres clubhouse who doesn’t believe their time is now. 

“I think that was a big mental hurdle for us to overcome,’’ Padres manager Bob Melvin said. “We always felt that we were going to put up a better fight, and lost every series, but we gained a lot of confidence by winning in the postseason. 

“I mean, when you go into a season with a $200 million payroll like we did, you’re confident that you’ll end up in the postseason, but going as far as we did [advancing to the NLCS], that left a good taste in our mouths. 

“This year, there’s clarity on what our goals and what our expectations should be.’’ 

Pretty simple: 

World Series or Bust, baby! 

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“It’s crazy to think how far we’ve come,’’ says Pomeranz, who remembers three Rule 5 players on his 2016 Padres team. “Before, the Padres were just a team no one talked about. No one cared about. Nothing. It’s unreal. 

“You look in here, and we’ve got four or five superstars, absolute superstars, it’s just unbelievable.’’ 

There’s six-time All-Star third baseman Manny Machado. There’s four-time All-Star and two-time World Series champion Xander Bogaerts. There’s three-time Silver Slugger and World Series champion Juan Soto and two-time Silver Slugger Fernando Tatis Jr. There’s four-time All-Star closer Josh Hader. There’s five-time All-Star Yu Darvish, Cy Young winner Blake Snell and All-Star and World Series champ Joe Musgrove in the rotation. And there’s seven-time All-Star and four-time Silver Slugger Nelson Cruz and three-time All-Star Carpenter sharing the DH role. 

It’s an embarrassment of riches that few teams can match. 

“I mean, you’re looking at one of the best rosters, if not the best roster, in Major League Baseball,’’ Carpenter said. “So super fun start to camp because not everybody gets a chance to say that they’re competing for a World Series this year.’’ 

The Padres have never won a World Series in their 54-year existence, winning just five division titles, and none in the past 17 years. 

Then again, there has never been a Padres’ team with a $255 million payroll, third-largest in baseball, either, after dropping more than $300 million in free-agent contracts this winter. 

“It’s like we’re compiling as many dudes as we can,’’ Pomeranz says. “It’s like an All-Star Game. The town is going crazy.’’ 

The hysteria over the Padres has caused the front office to cap season-ticket sales. They are expected to set a franchise-record in attendance, drawing more than three million fans for only the second time in history. Fire marshals had to intervene and limit the number of fans pouring into Petco Park two weeks ago at the Padres’ FanFest. 

Can you imagine what it would be like in San Diego if they won it all? 

The celebration in the Gaslamp Quarter would make Mardi Gras look like an elementary school pizza party. 

The Padres not only brought in Bogaerts, Carpenter, Wacha, reliever Seth Lugo, Carpenter and Cruz, but now will have Hader and Soto for a full season. Soto had the worst season of his young career, struggling to adjust after the trade with a .236/.338/.390 slash line, while Hader badly struggled the first month with a 19.06 ERA and .464 opponent’s batting average. 

It’s enough to make a homegrown kid dream. 

“I’ve been a Padres fan my whole life, and never was I able to see a playoff game or a World Series game growing up,’’ Musgrove says. “To be part of that first crew to do it it would be incredible. 

Win a championship now, and Musgrove will never have to explain 2017 ever again when he pitched on the Houston Astros World Series championship team, which later was found guilty of illegally stealing electronic signs. 

“Trust me, this is a ring,’’ he says, “I’d be wearing proudly.’’ 

Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale 

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