James Paxton, Teoscar Hernández power Dodgers over Padres in front of record crowd

The Dodgers weren’t in need of a “stopper” Saturday, not after winning 13 of their last 16 games.

They weren’t facing anything close to a must-win situation, either, not with a 5½-game lead over the San Diego Padres in the National League West.

Still, after dropping Friday’s series opener against the Padres, and entering Saturday just 2-4 against their Southern California rivals, the Dodgers did need a calming presence on the mound — a stabilizing force to set the tone in front of a record Petco Park crowd of 46,701.

Enter James Paxton, the 35-year-old veteran enjoying a productive start to his first Dodgers season.

“You want to listen to the silence when you’re on the road in a hostile environment,” manager Dave Roberts said. “And James set the tone.”

Indeed, while Freddie Freeman opened the scoring with a first-inning home run, before Teoscar Hernández broke it open with a sixth-inning grand slam, it was Paxton who shut the Padres down 5-0, firing six scoreless innings in his best start since signing in the offseason.

In a four-hit, four-strikeout, zero-walk performance — the last number was most important for Paxton, who entered the night with a major league-leading 24 walks — the left-hander showcased the kind of timely execution that has propelled his past performances.

He worked around two-out singles in the first and second innings. He stranded a leadoff double in the fifth. And, leaning almost exclusively on a fastball-curveball combination, he was able to complete six innings for the second straight start, something he did just once in five April outings.

“It’s feeling good,” said Paxton, who credited cleaner mechanics in his delivery for his improved command. “The rhythm got even better today, just kind of keeping up with what we’ve been doing. Just felt really good.”

Freeman’s blast — a line drive that hooked inside the right field foul pole — gave Paxton early breathing room. Hernández’s slam — which came on a hanging two-out, two-strike slider, moving him into a tie for second in the majors with 33 RBIs — effectively put the game away for the Dodgers (27-14).

Still, it was the half-dozen zeros Paxton placed on the scoreboard — lowering his earned-run average to 2.58 through seven starts — that might have been most crucial, sucking the life out of the jam-packed ballpark.

“Every time he takes the mound,” Roberts said, “he is just putting us in a position to win.”

Roberts has been among Paxton’s biggest fans since the spring, when he approached the pitcher near the end of camp for a potentially awkward conversation.

With Paxton not scheduled to pitch during the season-opening series in South Korea, the team decided he would stay home.

The decision was logical, so Paxton could keep building up arm strength and stamina without the burden of international travel. The rationale made sense, especially given Paxton’s history of injuries, which delayed his one-year signing with the Dodgers.

The only catch: It meant Paxton wouldn’t get the $70,000 bonus that players receive from Major League Baseball for participating in international events.

“That’s real money,” Roberts said — even for a longtime big leaguer like Paxton who has made nearly $55 million in his 11-year career.

But, when Roberts approached Paxton to deliver the news, “he didn’t bat an eye,” the manager recalled.

To Roberts, it was a telling interaction — offering an early indication of what the Dodgers had in their offseason signing before he’d even thrown his first official pitch for the team.

“It gave somebody else an opportunity to go there and pitch and make 70,000 bucks,” Roberts said recently, recounting the conversation. “But his whole point was, ‘Whatever it takes to get me ready.’ And that right there shows me a lot.”

In the two months since, Paxton has only continued to ingratiate himself with the Dodgers’ clubhouse.

The team congratulated him with a postgame toast last month after he eclipsed 10 years of service time. Young pitchers have looked to him as a veteran example. And on Saturday, he helped the Dodgers respond in their weekend rivalry series, subjecting the largest crowd in Petco Park history to the Padres’ first home shutout of the season.

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