SAN DIEGO — The Padres did precisely what they were supposed to do on Wednesday night, dispatching a subpar Angels team with relative ease.
They didn’t do enough of that this season, as their 37-35 record against sub-.500 opposition attests. But they did it on Wednesday — and the more wins in the bank against lower-level opposition, the better.
Because the schedule doesn’t get any easier.
It wasn’t as straightforward as it should’ve been, but the Padres’ 8-5 victory over the Angels at Petco Park ensured they will embark on a pivotal 10-game road trip carrying a lead in the race for the second National League Wild Card spot. San Diego holds a one-game edge on Cincinnati — two in the loss column.
“Road trip or homestand, every game with where we’re at at this point in the year, is crucial,” said Padres manager Jayce Tingler.
If that one-game lead feels particularly tenuous, here’s why: All of the Padres’ final 23 games come against opponents with winning records, including 20 against teams that currently occupy playoff places in the National League. Their next 10 games should be particularly tricky — a trip through Los Angeles, San Francisco and St. Louis.
Then again, for whatever reason, the Padres have risen to the occasion this year. They are 37-30 against teams with winning records, even if no one in the organization seems to understand why they have performed better against the good teams than the bad ones.
“I don’t know why that is,” said Padres shortstop Jake Cronenworth. “It’s just kind of the nature of the beast right now. We’ve got good teams coming up, some teams we’re familiar with. … We’ve got to take care of business on this road trip.”
The trip has loomed as the Padres’ toughest regular-season challenge since it became clear the Giants were a serious threat. For months, the goal was to build enough of a cushion to withstand their grueling late-season schedule.
It’s not much. But the victory Wednesday, coupled with the Reds’ walk-off loss to the Cubs in Chicago, gives the Padres the slimmest of cushions.
Yu Darvish pitched six innings of one-run ball, a hugely encouraging sign after he’d struggled since dealing with back and hip trouble in mid-July. He entered play with a 6.94 second-half ERA, after posting a 3.09 mark in the first half.
“I’ve been thinking as I’ve been pitching,” Darvish said. “It might be the first time to really let myself go out there and truly go by how I’m feeling. That was kind of what it was tonight.”
If the Padres can get the first-half version of Darvish down the stretch, that’s an enticing proposition, considering the way the rest of their rotation has performed. Blake Snell has been borderline untouchable since the start of August. Joe Musgrove, steady all season, might be pitching his best baseball right now. Chris Paddack has been solid in two starts since coming off the injured list.
“That’s definitely a big confidence boost for sure, the way the starters have been throwing the ball, the length they’re getting into games,” Tingler said. “You feel like they’re giving you a chance to win damn near every night.”
On Wednesday, the Padres gave Darvish plenty of support, too, plating eight runs in the second, their most in any inning this season. Wil Myers had two walks in the frame, and Adam Frazier had two hits. At one point, San Diego hitters worked four consecutive walks, including three that plated runs with the bases loaded. Every Padres starting position player reached base at least once.
Things got dicey for a moment following Darvish’s exit. Dinelson Lamet surrendered two runs in the seventh inning, and Tim Hill and Daniel Hudson allowed one apiece in the eighth. But closer Mark Melancon came on to record his Major League-leading 37th save.
“When you’re able to get some runs early, we need to be able to continue to score,” Tingler said. “But you’re never going to complain with an eight-run inning. We were able to hold on.”
Hold on, they did. Now, the Padres have a Wild Card lead, and they’ll spend the next 3 1/2 weeks — against the staunchest of opposition — trying to hold onto that, as well.