Hernández: Padres are for real, and maybe the Dodgers should be nervous

San Diego Padres' Fernando Tatis Jr. and Eric Hosmer celebrate after scoring
Padres teammates Fernando Tatis Jr., left, and Eric Hosmer celebrate after scoring on a double by Tommy Pham in the eighth inning of a 5-2 win over the Dodgers on Sunday. (K.C. Alfred / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Nervous? Just a little?

After years of running uncontested through the National League West, after years of conditioning Los Angeles to believe baseball season really started in October, the Dodgers have a legitimate threat within their division.

The San Diego Padres are for real.

The Padres, who claimed a 5-2 victory Sunday in the series finale between the teams at Petco Park, are what they were expected to be, maybe more.

They can pitch with the Dodgers. They can hit with the Dodgers. They can flat-out play with the Dodgers.

The Dodgers beat San Diego twice in their three-game weekend series, but this isn’t over, not close. They have 16 regular-season games remaining against the Padres, including a four-game series at Dodger Stadium starting Thursday.

And they’re bound to play again in October, as they look like the NL’s two best teams.

“It’s a hungry group,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said of the Padres. “I think that they've looked at us and want to take us down in the National League West.”

The Best Team Ever might not be the best team in its division.

All three games played at Petco Park could have gone either way.

Twelve innings were required to decide the opener, which was won by the Dodgers.

The second game came within inches of extra innings as well, with a diving game-ending catch by Mookie Betts preventing a two-run double by Tommy Pham that would have erased the Dodgers’ 2-0 advantage.

As close as the first two games were, the fact the Dodgers found ways to win, and the Padres didn’t, signaled the gap between the teams wasn’t as close as San Diego manager Jayce Tingler claimed.

“They don’t make mistakes,” Padres starter Yu Darvish said. “They execute every play cleanly.”

Talent and depth matter. But so does the knowing how to do the small things that make a difference in games. The Dodgers seemed to have that; the Padres seemed to not.

Which is why the finale Sunday was monumental for the Padres.

The Padres did to the Dodgers what the Dodgers did to them the previous two days. When the Dodgers made a mistake, the Padres made them pay.

In this case, the critical play was an eighth-inning throwing error by Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager with the score tied 2-2. The Padres went on to score three unearned runs in that inning.

“I expect all of our series against them to be similar to this,” Dodgers utility man Chris Taylor said.

However well the Padres match up with them, the Dodgers remain the favorites, their superior depth making them better-prepared to withstand the demands of a 162-game season.

Roberts admittedly managed the series with the larger picture in mind. He said he called on the relatively inexperienced Dennis Santana out of the bullpen after Seager’s throwing error because he wanted to refrain from using Corey Knebel and Blake Treinen.

Knebel, who pitched in the series opener, is only two years removed from a major elbow operation. Treinen is a known workhorse but pitched Friday and Saturday.

“Every game is important, but the health of our relievers is more important,” Roberts said.

Something else to consider: The Dodgers were without Cody Bellinger, who is sidelined because of a hairline fracture in his left fibula.

Still, if an unspectacular Colorado Rockies team could push the Dodgers to a tiebreaking 163rd game to decide the NL West in 2018, these Padres can give them a serious scare.

Roberts welcomed the rivalry, which made the Dodgers and Padres the talk of not only Southern California this weekend but the entire country.

The possible downside to the emerging threat, however, could leave the Dodgers looking back fondly on the days when they were Secretariat and every other team in the division was a broken-down horse on his way to the glue factory.

The NL West champion will advance directly to the divisional round of the playoffs. The runner-up will have to play in a loser-go-home, one-game playoff against the NL’s other wild-card team.

At the very least, the Dodgers will certainly be subjected again to a sound they heard Sunday when the Padres’ mascot rang the victory bell in the left-field corner at Petco Park.

The Swinging Friar waved a flag, as he does after every Padres win. Except in this case, the display was more than a celebration. This was also a warning about what the Dodgers should expect over the remainder of the season.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.