The Dodgers‘magic number is now … a magic number.
With nine more Dodgers wins, San Diego Padres losses or some combination of the two, the Dodgers will once again be champions of the National League West.
And based on the last couple of nights at Chavez Ravine, it shouldn’t take much longer.
Despite using eight pitchers in what essentially became an unplanned bullpen game Sunday night, the Dodgers still blew the Padres away in a weekend series rubber match at Dodger Stadium, winning 9-4 to move a step closer to reclaiming a division title they won eight consecutive years from 2013 to 2020 before finishing second last season.
Last fall, the Dodgers and San Francisco Giants jockeyed for the division crown down the stretch, with the standings remaining undecided until the final day of the season.
“Every game was do or die, it seemed like, trying to jockey to find a way to win the division last year,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts recalled.
This year, the Dodgers are running away from the pack in near-historic fashion, extending their lead to 19 games over the second-place Padres even on a night when their pitching didn’t go according to plan.
“We’ve put ourselves in a good spot,” Roberts said. “The challenge is to go out there and play with urgency and keep the bar high.”
Although the Dodgers used an opener for the first time this season, Sunday’s outing wasn’t supposed to be an all-out bullpen game.
After a scoreless first inning from Caleb Ferguson in which the left-hander struck out all three batters looking on just 11 pitches, the rookie right-hander Ryan Pepiot entered for what the Dodgers hoped would be an extended relief appearance.
Seventy-four pitches later, Pepiot was leaving the mound after recording just six outs.
Having been recalled for Sunday’s game to give the Dodgers’ rotation an extra day of rest, Pepiot struggled with his command and ability to finish at-bats.
He issued four walks. He pitched in and out of trouble, yielding an unearned run in the third. And he was finally pulled following consecutive free passes to begin the fourth.
“He just really didn’t have enough to put those guys away,” Roberts said. “So to go two-plus, we had to cover some innings.”
The Dodgers reached deep into their bullpen to do it.
Alex Vesia was summoned first, stranding the two runners he inherited from Pepiot with two strikeouts and a popup.
The Dodgers’ offense then hung five runs on the Padres starter Mike Clevinger in the bottom half of the fourth, first on a leadoff home run from Will Smith, then on Cody Bellinger’s bases-loaded walk, Mookie Betts’ sacrifice fly and Trea Turner’s two-run bloop double.
Vesia returned to the mound to begin the fifth, then passed the baton to Chris Martin for a scoreless inning.
About the only key leverage reliever who struggled for the Dodgers was previously streaking setup man Evan Phillips, who in the seventh inning allowed two inherited runners to score, plus another run that was charged to him, to let the Padres get back to within 5- 4.
“One night he just wasn’t on,” Roberts said of Phillips, who hadn’t previously allowed a baserunner since Aug. 6. “That’s going to happen.”
Once again, the Dodgers didn’t wait long to respond.
In the bottom of the seventh, their lineup exploded for another crooked number, with Justin Turner lining an RBI double to left before Trayce Thompson came off the bench and belted a three-run, pinch-hit home run — just his second long ball of the season against left-handed pitching.
The Dodgers (92-41) cruised the rest of the way, lowering their magic number from 12 to nine because they also clinched their season series against the Padres (74-61), improving to 10-3 against the second-place club to lock up the head-to-head tiebreaker.
“This game was not easy to manage,” Roberts said after using all but one member of the bullpen. “But those guys made pitches when they needed to.”
The only question now is how much longer it will take the Dodgers to wrap up the division title.
The earliest they have done it in franchise history was 2019, when they clinched in their 146th game on Sept. 10.
At their current pace, they could be spraying champagne even sooner — perhaps, fittingly, by the end of next weekend in San Diego, where they will face the Padres again for a three-game series that starts Friday.
“We know where we’re at and that we have a big lead,” Smith said. “But we just have to continue to want to play good baseball.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.