A familiar story this season: Padres defeat the Dodgers

For most of this season, the Dodgers have looked close to invincible.

Their eight meetings with the San Diego Padres, however, have loomed as a rare, and potentially worrying, exception.

For the second time already this season, the Dodgers dropped a series to their intradivision rivals, falling to the Padres 4-0 in a Sunday rubber match at a sold-out Petco Park.

The reasons for this defeat weren’t difficult to diagnose. Shohei Ohtani sat out because of a tight back. Padres starter Yu Darvish cruised through seven scoreless innings. AndWalker Buehler struggled in his second start back from Tommy John surgery, giving up three runs while recording only 10 outs in 3 ⅓ innings.

Yet for a Dodgers team that — fair or not — will be judged almost entirely on being able to win in October, the Padres (22-21) have been the one opponent this season to consistently neutralize them. They’ve not only won five of the eight meetings between the clubs, but have done so with the kind of pitching-dominant blueprint that has troubled the Dodgers problems in postseasons past.

“They’ve been really unpredictable,” manager Dave Roberts said after his team was shut out for only the second time this season. “Part of it is attacking some of our hitters’ weaknesses, going to their strengths. But I really think that they’ve just mixed and matched well. They’ve executed.”

If that sounds familiar, it’s because it is true.

In the Dodgers’ repeated playoff failures the last three years, a frustratingly common theme was their star-studded lineups being flustered by unpredictable opposing pitching plans.

On Sunday, Darvish became the latest veteran arm to quiet the Dodgers (27-15) in such fashion — throwing his fastball “a lot more than he typically does against us,” Roberts said — in a start that began with 14 consecutive outs and hardly encountered any danger.

“We just couldn’t get anything going,” Roberts conceded. “He was in rhythm. He was locked in.”

In Buehler’s second outing since returning this season, the Dodgers’ right-hander was the opposite.

Buehler gave up back-to-back home runs to Fernando Tatis Jr. and Jake Cronenworth in the first inning on fastballs that caught the strike zone. Then, a series of pitch-consuming jams forced him from the game with one out in the fourth — well short of the five-inning target Roberts had set for his starter.

Buehler said he was “a little more encouraged today” than in his four-inning, three-run return last week against the Miami Marlins, citing a greater number of properly executed pitches — his curveball, in particular, looked sharp at times.

Buehler added bluntly, “I’ve got to get reacclimated to being here.”

“For a few more starts, I’m kind of giving myself a little bit of grace,” the 29-year-old said. “And then after that, that kind of ‘happy to be here’ thing will go away.”

In the big picture, the Dodgers’ setback this weekend should be no more than a temporary blip.

Ohtani is set to return to the lineup Monday, requiring only a one-day rest after his back tightened up Saturday night.

The Dodgers’ lineup seems bound to heat up again as well, especially if Mookie Betts can build off a two-hit performance Sunday that was preceded by an eight-for-44 slump.

Even Buehler’s lumps were somewhat expected since he sat out almost two full years rehabilitating from a second elbow surgery.

“We just can’t lose sight of the fact that he hasn’t pitched in two years,” Roberts said. “I’m not going to put much stock in two outings.”

Still, for a Dodgers team that had played almost flawless baseball the last few weeks, arriving in San Diego as winners in 14 of their previous 16 games, their continued struggles against the Padres remain notable.

Though the Padres rank just 17th in team ERA, they have held the Dodgers to a .208 batting average this season. In their last six meetings, L.A.’s powerhouse offense has averaged just 3.5 runs.

“Obviously, they get up to play us,” Roberts said. “And they’ve pitched us well.”

Well enough to remind a franchise fixated on October success that it can still be susceptible to talented opposing pitching. That its star-studded lineup can still be quieted by crafty, competent, capricious opponent game plans.

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