Column: Joe Musgrove’s historic Game 3 start in New York made history, set expectations for 2023

There was the 89-minute jewel of a win by reigning NL Cy Young winner Randy Jones against Jim Kaat and the Phillies in 1977. Jake Peavy, barreling toward a Cy Young of his own, struck out 16 Diamondbacks in 2007. Rubber-armed Clay Kirby tossed 15 innings against the Astros in 1971, a season after being pulled three outs shy of a no hitter.

The mountaintop of pitching starts in franchise history, though, has belonged to Kevin Brown. In 1998, he silenced the loaded Astros — future Hall of Famers Bagwell, Biggio and all — during Game 1 of the NL Division Series in Houston.

It’s what he did, carving up 16 hitters on strikeouts, allowing just two hits, while facing Hall-bound flamethrower Randy Johnson. It’s when he did it, in late-September, to set the tone for a playoff run that reached the World Series.

That was the filthiest-of-the-filthy gold standard for a franchise dating to 1968.

Until 2022. Until raucous, profane Citi Field and the Mets. Until a historic start that unfolded under unprecedented circumstances with a potentially rhythm-wrecking banned substance check requested by Mets manager Buck Showalter.

Until Joe Musgrove.

What happened on the night of Oct. 9, a 6-0 Padres win, proved to be more than a single playoff victory by leaps and big-time bounds. It was a win-or-hit-the-beach matchup … in a three-game series played entirely in New York … against the 101-win Mets with uber-arms Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom.

That was a place where a plucky playoff dream goes to wheeze its final breaths.

Instead, a hometown kid from El Cajon and Grossmont High School delivered the most important and impacting start from a pitcher in Padres’ history. It provided the rocket fuel for a run that reached the NLCS. It ratcheted up confidence leading into the NLDS against the Dodgers, the 111-win Dodgers, who had taken 23 of the previous 28 against the Padres and won a staggering nine series in a row.

“That carried on to the next series, then on to the next series,” Padres third baseman Manny Machado said. “We’d fought to get past the Dodgers to get to where we wanted to go. That definitely led to a lot of other things than just that one game.

“He had the pressure of the whole city, the whole organization, everyone in this clubhouse. He put us on his back. The thing with them thinking he was cheating. Being from San Diego (as a kid). All that.

“To have all that pressure, that gives you that next-level energy superstars take it to. That’s what he did that day.”

Manny Machado, right, and Padres teammates celebrate with starting pitcher Joe Musgrove after beating the Mets in clinching Game 3 of the NL Wild Card Series on Oct. 9 at Citi Field in N.Y.

(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Though Musgrove is working his way back from a broken big toe on his left foot, injured when he dropped a kettlebell on it during a spring-training workout, the meaningfulness of one unforgettable night in New York lingers.

Musgrove became the first pitcher in postseason history to allow two hits or fewer while pitching at least seven innings in a winner-take-all game.

“In history? Or San Diego?” said catcher Austin Nola, who caught the game without knowing the record-setting significance of his battery mate. “Wow. The curveball, I remember vividly as being the best one I’ve seen ever from him. What a perfect time to do it.

“He brought his best game. Lights out.”

That type of performance surely was born out of calm confidence in the days leading up to the game, right?

Nope. The opposite.

“Just nervous as (expletive),” Musgrove recalled. “Excitement, fear, nerves, adrenaline. The first couple days, I’m battling the back and forth of trying to say focused, pretending it doesn’t matter. Part of me was hoping I didn’t have to throw, though.

“The day of the game, I was sick to my stomach. Didn’t eat. If I blow this game, all the downside, all the negative, the fans I’m letting down, that’s all I can think about. Then I made the turn into, if I do pitch the game of my life and push us into the next round, what would that feel like.

“I just felt like I was at a different level of focus.”

Finding focus, particularly under the most stressful of circumstances, sets Musgrove apart from so many others.

“It was the best start of his career and he threw a no-hitter,” said Dom Johnson, Musgrove’s godfather and personal pitching coach. “He didn’t back down. The magnitude of that game, that’s the best he’s pitched in his life.

“Before the start, I sent Joe a text he had sent me earlier in the year. I think it says so much about him, the way he thinks, the way he approaches things. (Beginning to read the text) ‘Everyone would love to go out and throw 7 scoreless and have great mechanics. But you rarely get all of those stars aligning. What’s real is going out there, not knowing which version of yourself is going to show up and to compete and win with THAT GUY.’ ”

That guy on that night? Clutch. Unflappable. Unstoppable.

“Every time he takes the mound, he’s just an animal out there,” Machado explained. “It’s fun to watch.”

A furious fire is lit

The subplot that propelled Musgrove into the forever territory of Padres lore came in the sixth inning, when Showalter — the Mets manager — threw the Hail Mary to disrupt him. Umpires checked Musgrove as shouts of “Cheater! Cheater! Cheater!” rained down.

The man who threw the franchise’s only no-hitter, the April 9, 2021, gem against the Rangers in Arlington, Texas, never had faced that level of coal-to-diamond pressure. A season at stake. A city chewing nails to nubs.

None of the best starts in franchise history came in October, when these types of things matter most.

“If anybody could handle it, it was him,” manager Bob Melvin said of The Showalter Moment. “But yes, it definitely was a concern. Do you go too far? Do you stay how you are? Does it make you compete even more so? With anyone else, it might have gotten out of whack a little bit.

“How he dealt with it was huge. It’s the difference between having a feel-good season and one that ends really hard. It put us in a good position with a lot of confidence going into that Dodgers series. Gave us more confidence going in after playing all three games New York in a tough environment.

“That toughened us up a little bit.”

Pitcher Joe Musgrove has his glove checked by umpires in the sixth inning of NL Wild Card Series Game 3 on Oct. 9 in N.Y.

Pitcher Joe Musgrove has his glove checked by umpires in the sixth inning of NL Wild Card Series Game 3 on Oct. 9 in N.Y. Musgrove earned the win as the Padres advanced to the NLDS.

(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Veteran pitcher Craig Stammen argued the ripples carried beyond 2022.

“Think of the difference it we had lost that game, how everyone would have looked at our season,” he said. “It basically changed the trajectory and the expectations for 2023.

“There’s nobody more mentally tough than Joe. He trains for that. He trains to not be bothered on the mound, to be a stud. He’s like, ‘Come at me. I’ve got whatever I need in return.’ That’s what he showed in New York.”

The feel of the moment remains vivid.

“At that point in the game, I had so much confidence in my ability to executive pitches,” Musgrove said. “I knew exactly how I wanted to pitch to the guys coming up. I’d beaten them with the right weapons.

“When that happens, I was like, please don’t let me (expletive) get thrown out. Then the umpires said: ‘We don’t want to do this, but Buck wants us to check.’ I said, ‘Do whatever you need to do. I’ve got nothing to hide.’

“That just lit another fire. I was so dialed in. That just kicked me into another gear. Everyone’s screaming cheater at me. It felt good to shove it up their (expletive).”

Untold NY story

Truth is, Musgrove said he knew the game was won before it began. It started with sharpening his pregame focus. The confidence was sealed, in his mind, as he warmed up on the field.

He explained.

“I told Nola going in, ‘I’m going to pitch the (expletive) game of my life,’ ” Musgrove said. “I felt overly confident at that point. I finally had the nerves and mind under control.

“I got out there (on the field) plenty early because I wanted to kind of hear the sounds of the stadium and adjust to the fans, the (expletive) talk and all that stuff that comes with pitching there. I wanted to get used to that.

“I saw (opposing starter Chris) Bassitt walking out with his hoodie on and his head down. He’s warming up, headphones or whatever he had. Then we warmed up side by side in the bullpen. The way the bullpens are there, I could hear him (expletive) himself for bouncing balls in the dirt or not hitting his location. I knew I had him beat right there. I was way more under control.

“I could tell he felt the pressure of the moment. I just felt like I had him beat from the get-go, before I even threw a pitch.”

Then he delivered the game of his life.

“He stepped up,” pitching teammate Blake Snell said. “That’s what Joe does.”

A start like no other.

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