When two hitters "square off" in a baseball series, it is essentially always in the abstract sense. One guy'll have his chances at the plate, and the other will have his own, separate occasions to shine. But in the seventh inning of Game 2 between the Padres and the Dodgers, the reigning NL MVP got an opportunity to directly step into the path of a charismatic young upstart's rise to glory, and in doing so made the defining play of this postseason so far.
With a runner on second base and his team down 4-3, the thrilling and lovable Fernando Tatis Jr. stepped into the box against Dodgers flamethrower Brusdar Graterol. Tatis had been kept fairly quiet in his at-bats so far this series, but on the first pitch he saw from Graterol, he sent a bomb to dead center. Per Statcast, a swing with that launch velocity and launch angle is a home run 80 percent of the time, and this would've been one too. Would've. The ball sailed and sailed all the way to the 407-foot fence, but unfortunately for Tatis, L.A. centerfielder Cody Bellinger caught up with it before it could become a dinger. Bellinger leaped and made a spectacular catch to send Graterol into a frenzy and protect the Dodgers' lead. The Padres wouldn't go away quietly after that, loading the bases in the ninth, but they still fell 6-5. The series, which now stands 2-0 Dodgers, clearly shifted on Bellinger's glove in the seventh.
Anyone outside of Florida and Georgia would agree that this intense, emotional NLDS battle should absolutely be for the pennant and not a mere warm-up for the Atlanta Braves (who are a perfectly fine baseball team but pale in comparison to these two made-for-TV squads). But in the first two of potentially only three games, the Dodgers have so far been able to write the story that they've wanted to be told.
The Padres are a rowdy little bunch, with a few too many veterans to really be referred to as "kids" but still undeniably symbolized by the cocky beauty of Tatis's play. Before this year, they had won just a single postseason game since 1998, but with an aggressive makeover that endeared them to fans nationwide, they are a kind of sentimental favorite among neutrals. The Dodgers, meanwhile, could not be any more familiar. They are, by essentially any measure except honest-to-god championships, the most consistently successful team of the past decade—the kings of the NL West eight years running who have played for the pennant six times since 2008, but don't have any better hardware than that.
It's almost too good a contrast to be true, and it's certainly too good to only be a best-of-five series, but it was on full display in the seventh inning last night. Bellinger, who's still extremely young (just 25!) but has already lost the World Series twice in the sunrise of his career, simply refused to let Tatis and the Padres hotshot their way ahead of the Dodgers, having paid none of the same dues and having suffered none of the same crushing defeats. With effort and talent, Bellinger reached up and pulled the Padres back into what he saw as their rightful place: behind the Dodgers. But even if L.A. is able to contain the Padres this year, they are simply too rambunctious to be runners-up forever.