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Contender or pretender? One team looks the part in SF Giants’ romp over big-pocketed Padres

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SAN DIEGO — On the Giants’ last visit here, one team was in the thick of a playoff race and the other decidedly was not. It showed. Seats were packed. Play was lopsided. On one side, it was especially sloppy.

That was last year.

On their first and only visit to America’s finest city, an oddity of the balanced schedule and two games in Mexico City, the tables had turned.

For all their struggles, the Giants entered Thursday’s series opener against the Padres holding the slimmest of leads on a playoff position, while the star-studded opposition — carrying the game’s third-highest payroll — held the same record as the team that sent them Juan Soto last season.

And in front of more than a few empty seats on the first day of Labor Day weekend, one team went down with a whimper, committed mental and physical errors and generally played uncompetitive baseball while the other squad poured it on. In other words, one team played like a playoff contender.

The Giants, having seemingly rediscovered their mojo during a series win over the Reds, took the first of four games, 7-2. Their fourth win in five games, the Giants (70-64) reaffirmed their grasp on the third and final wild card spot, widening their advantage to a full game over the D-backs and 1½ over the Reds, who were both off.

It dropped the Padres (62-73) a season-high 11 games below .500.

“It seemed like there was a little lack of energy,” said outfielder Mike Yastrzemski, who finished 2-for-4 with a home run in his second game back from a monthlong absence. “You could kind of see it on the other side. I don’t really have a better way to say it. It didn’t seem like they were playing their best, and we were able to take advantage of some of their mistakes.”

Jakob Junis tossed four scoreless innings and reached his allotment of pitches before he allowed a hit. Yastrzemski homered to left field, igniting louder cheers from the strong contingent of Giants fans than from the Padres fans who initially believed Soto’s leaping attempt at the wall had been successful.

But the teams’ discrepancies stood at their starkest contrasts in the third inning.

Aided by a pair of Padres errors, and a couple more plays that could have been classified either way, the Giants batted around and opened a 6-0 lead.

The inning started with an error by first baseman Matthew Batten and was extended on Manny Machado’s second errant throw of the game (an error that was also credited to Batten), while two more runs scored on a safety squeeze that Wade Meckler beat out when Ha-Seong Kim failed to cover first and a double from Blake Sabol that made it all of 20 feet into the outfield after it glanced off Xander Bogaerts’ glove.

Asked afterward to sum up the third inning and all of its miscues, manager Gabe Kapler requested the reporter be more specific.

“Well,” he said, “there’s a lot.”

It matched the best inning for a long-ailing offense since before the last time these teams met, in the third week of June. It was the sixth time this season the Giants scored six or more runs in one inning but only the second time since Memorial Day.

“Big innings are just so critical to winning baseball games,” Kapler said. “One-run innings are good; two-run innings aregood. But you put up those crooked numbers and it just makes it very difficult to come back. You get a little cushion. It gives a little confidence to the pitcher, and then they go through the innings a little bit easier.”

Four of the Giants’ five hits in the inning came with runners in scoring position, while the two times the Padres threatened — with the bases loaded against Sean Manaea in the sixth and runners at second and third against Ryan Walker in the eighth — they struck out to end the threat.

Tag-teaming the majority of a two-run effort, Junis and Manaea completed their redemption arcs from difficult starts to the season.

Making his fourth start (all since July 31), Junis didn’t allow a hit and put just two runners on base — a walk, which he stranded, and a hit batsman, which he erased with an inning-ending double play — over four innings. In 15 appearances since the start of July, he has a 2.53 ERA, including 12⅔ innings as a starter without allowing a run.

“It’s definitely not in my mind to go out there and throw no-hit innings,” Junis said. “I’m just trying to go out there and throw first-pitch strikes, get the first guy out of the inning, get quick outs, keep the ball in the ballpark and when look up later in the game, if there’s no hits, there’s no hits.”

Both Junis and Kapler chalked up his run of success to better incorporating his changeup into his typical slider-sinker mix. He threw the pitch 10 times Thursday, generating three called strikes and three foul balls without a Padre batter putting it in play.

“The slider was really working, but one of the things that makes Jake good is when he’s mixing his pitches,” Kapler said. “It’s a nice pitch mix and a really good job by (Blake) Sabol partnering with Jake today.”

Pitching with his bushy hair tied back in a ponytail rather than flowing out of his hat, Manaea wasn’t quite as sharp, issuing five walks and throwing barely half his pitches for strikes, but was nevertheless effective. He’s made nine appearances dating back to July 29 with a 2.55 ERA.

“They’ve both been pitching really well for a while,” Kapler said while noting that Manaea “wasn’t as efficient as he could be.”

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