Padres shut out Cardinals, pad Wild Card lead

SAN DIEGO — If the Padres, at long last, are playing like the best version of themselves — and based on the past four games worth of evidence, it’s starting to look that way, isn’t it? — they sure picked an opportune time to do so.

In every facet, the Padres kept rolling on Tuesday night, with a 5-0 victory over the Cardinals at Petco Park. Mike Clevinger pitched 5 2/3 excellent innings, making him the third consecutive San Diego starter to toss scoreless ball. The bullpen was lights-out. The offense got contributions from everywhere. Even the baserunning was impeccable.

“Crisp games, good defense, timely hitting, good pitching – it usually adds up to a win,” said Padres manager Bob Melvin. “It has the last several.”

In other words, the Padres are doing the things that playoff-bound teams do. And speaking of which…

San Diego’s four-game winning streak has also synched up perfectly with some struggles from fellow Wild Card contenders. The Brewers and Phillies both lost on Tuesday, meaning the Padres grew their lead to 1 1/2 games over Philadelphia for the second Wild Card spot and four games over Milwaukee for the last place in the postseason.

With 14 games left to play, the Padres’ magic number to clinch a postseason berth is down to 10.

“This is probably my favorite part of baseball,” Clevinger said. “It’s this part, and when you get to the postseason. It’s a different kind of baseball.”

It’s certainly a different kind of baseball from last September’s collapse. Heck, the Padres have already accomplished something they didn’t last year (when they entered September 10 games above .500).

Tuesday’s victory was the Padres’ 82nd of the season, assuring them of a finish above .500 in a full 162-game season for the first time since 2010. On top of that, the Padres are now 4-0 since an ugly loss in Arizona prompted a rare meeting in which Melvin called out his players.

“As a team, we agreed 100 percent on everything he said,” shortstop Ha-Seong Kim said through a team interpreter. “Obviously we played hard every night from Game 1, but he kind of put us all together. So now everyone’s on the same page, the same goal. He just gave us a good reminder. It was a good wakeup call for us.”

The Padres scored in the first inning Tuesday and never looked back. Their rally was harmless enough: a questionable walk, a seeing-eye single and Jake Cronenworth’s two-run single — a 64-mph exit-velocity blooper.

But they made the most of that rally because of their savvy on the basepaths. Manny Machado had reached on a fielder’s choice, then smartly tagged and reached second on Brandon Drury’s fly ball into the right-field corner.

After Kim’s solo homer in the fourth, the Padres plated another in the fifth when José Azocar got a brilliant read on Machado’s duck snort into center field and came around to score. Sure, the Padres got some batted-ball luck. But they made the absolute most of it.

“When we’ve played our best baseball, we’ve played like we are right now,” Melvin said. “That’s easy to say because we’re winning games. But there’s reasons you’re winning games. It’s the intensity early in the games. It’s taking that extra 90 feet.”

In the meantime, Clevinger offered quite a bounceback from his poor showing in Seattle last week. Melvin has been quick to note that Clevinger has pitched through some bumps and bruises, including a lingering right knee ailment that has bothered him since early in the season.

Clevinger has avoided using those ailments as an excuse for his recent struggles. But on Tuesday, he was quick to praise the team’s training staff for its work over the past four days in Arizona.

“I’ve been grinding through some things,” Clevinger said. “Had a good work week, found some things in the training room, the weight room, to get myself in better positions to perform out there. Hats off to the entire training staff.”

Said Melvin: “This was Clev’s best day in a while. Not just the numbers, but the velo was at 96 at times, his breaking ball was really sharp. … Man, it’s good to see him pitch like that. Because we need him.”

Really, the Padres and their fans had only one gripe with Clevinger on Tuesday. With Cardinals legend Albert Pujols two homers shy of 700, Clevinger issued a second-inning walk. The crowd, which had risen to its feet, booed. Some teammates jokingly joined in from the top step of the dugout.

“What’s it like to get booed by your own crowd and teammates?” Clevinger quipped. “… No, what he’s doing is amazing. The mark he’s going to leave on baseball is going to be around for eternity. So I’m just grateful to get another opportunity against him.

“And I’m glad I’m not the one that gave it up to him.”

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