NEW YORK — San Diego Padres starter Joe Musgrove knew Sunday was the biggest start of his life and felt sick to his stomach all day.
The stakes were high. A winner-takes-all playoff finale pitching in front of a hostile New York City crowd at Citi Field. San Diego needed a strong start from the righty after the team struggled in Game 2 against the New York Mets.
As Musgrove contemplated the five-year, $100 million contract the Padres rewarded him with in August, he felt the weight of his team’s season falling onto his shoulders.
But as first pitch ticked closer and Musgrove warmed up in the Citi Field bullpen, he pulled aside Padres catcher Austin Nola to talk about the night ahead of them.
“I’m going to have the best start of my life,” Musgrove told Nola.
His premonition came true, as Musgrove went seven innings, allowing just one hit and one walk and striking out five batters, propelling the Padres to a 6-0 victory and punching a ticket to the National League Division Series and a matchup against the Los Angeles Dodgers. In the process, Musgrove made history, becoming the first pitcher in major league history to throw seven shutout innings and allow one hit in a winner-takes-all postseason game.
Throughout the evening, Musgrove relied on his fastball, cutter, curveball and slider to completely dominate the Mets’ lineup, retiring the first 12 batters of the game, good for the longest perfect-game bid in Padres postseason history. The Mets struggled to mount any offensive momentum against the Padres, with first baseman Pete Alonso tallying the only Mets hit of the evening in the fifth inning.
“You could see the resolve in [Musgrove’s] face and the demeanor he had,” Padres manager Bob Melvin said. “He was on a mission today.”
An odd moment came in the bottom of the sixth inning when Mets manager Buck Showalter requested a substance check on Musgrove as pictures circulated online of the Padres starter’s ear appearing to shine. Umpires subsequently dug their fingers inside and around Musgrove’s ear but did not find anything that violated the rules.
Mets fans at Citi Field followed the inspections with loud boos aimed at Musgrove, with chants of “cheater” echoing throughout the stadium.
“We found nothing,” umpire Alfonso Marquez said.
Melvin took issue with the Mets asking to check Musgrove for foreign substances.
“The problem I have is that Joe Musgrove is a man of character,” Melvin said. “Questioning his character, that’s the part I have a problem with and I’m here to tell everybody that Joe Musgrove is above board as any pitcher I know, any player I know, and unfortunately the reception he got after that was not warranted.”
After the substance check, Musgrove struck out Mets catcher Tomas Nido and gestured toward the New York dugout, swiping under his nose. Musgrove said the foreign substance check by the Mets was “desperate” and the team’s “last attempt to get me out of the game.”
“It almost just lit a fire under me,” Musgrove said.
Showalter said the team was privy to information — including increased spin rate from Musgrove — that led to him asking the umpires to check for foreign substances. According to Baseball Savant, all of Musgrove’s pitches Sunday night exceeded his season average of rotations per minute.
“I’m charged with doing what’s best for the New York Mets,” Showalter said. “If it makes me look however it makes me look or whatever, I’m going to do it every time and live with the consequences. I’m not here to hurt somebody’s feelings.”
The Padres will make their second appearance in the division series since 2006, with the only other appearance coming in 2020 when they lost to the eventual World Series champion Dodgers.
Los Angeles went 14-5 against the Padres in the regular season. The Dodgers ranked as the top offense in baseball in 2022, scoring 847 runs, while San Diego ranked 13th among all teams, scoring 705 runs. The Dodgers also had the lowest team ERA in baseball while the Padres ranked 11th.
Sunday’s win also guarantees that the Padres will play their first playoff home game with fans in Petco Park since 2006.
“It’s one of the best feelings about this night,” Melvin said. “We talked about it in the hitters meetings today. There’s a lot on the line here and there are a lot of reasons to be motivated and inspired. One of them is bringing this thing back to San Diego and giving them a postseason experience.”
With Musgrove pitching exceptionally well in the biggest game of his career, Mets starter Chris Bassitt had little room for error, but the Padres’ offense took advantage of every opportunity it earned early in the game.
San Diego’s offense came gradually throughout the course of the evening. Nola started the tally in the second inning with a single to left field that scored first baseman Josh Bell and shortstop Ha-Seong Kim. In the fourth inning, Padres outfielder Trent Grisham — who led the Padres’ offense in the previous wild-card games with two homers — singled on a sharp line drive to center field, scoring Kim.
Bassitt left the game after four innings, allowing three runs on three hits, three walks and two strikeouts.
“I was just beating myself,” Bassitt said. “Looking back at the Atlanta start, I’m not sure how many runs they scored on walks, and then tonight I know they scored two guys on walks. Not too proud of that.”
The Mets’ bullpen did not fare much better. Third baseman Manny Machado added on in the fifth inning by hitting a line-drive single off reliever David Peterson to right field, scoring outfielder Jurickson Profar to make the score 4-0. In the eighth, outfielder Juan Soto added some cushion by singling to left field off Edwin Diaz, scoring Kim and Grisham. The six runs from the Padres proved to be more than enough to punch a ticket to the division series.
The stakes are high for the Padres, who made blockbuster moves at the trade deadline for superstar outfielder Soto and reliever Josh Hader. San Diego also dealt with the fallout following the 80-game suspension in August of superstar shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr., who tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug.
The Padres have made significant financial investments in Tatis, Soto, Machado, Yu Darvish, Wil Myers and Blake Snell, expecting to contend for a World Series title.
Sunday’s win gets San Diego one step closer.