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Rivalry Rarity: A Pennant Race

With the first series of the season between the Giants and Dodgers in the books, San Francisco is 5-2 and the Dodgers are 5-3. Could this finally be the year that the clubs engage in a head-to-head, down to the final week of the season pennant race? Such a down-to-the wire showdown has been a rarity in the rivalry. The Giants and Dodgers played their first regular season game in 1890, but it took until 1924 for the teams to really have one of those great one-on-one battles, the Giants clinching the pennant over the Dodgers on Sept. 27. The rivalry is in another of those competitive droughts, with the last late-season race having occurred 10 seasons ago in 2004. The Dodgers clinched the flag over the Giants that year in a season-closing series. The clubs appeared headed for a lively finish in 2012, especially after the new Dodgers owners went on a spending spree for new talent. However, money did not buy happiness for the Dodgers, and the Giants ran away from them on their way to a World Series title.

The just-concluded three-game series in Los Angeles is too small a sample size to do a credible analysis. The Giants, after all, won their first series against the Dodgers 2-1 in 2013, but Los Angeles went on to win the NL pennant while the Giants took a nosedive after flying so high the previous season.

Some thoughts on the opening series:

* The Giants’ 6-run first inning in the first game was the most runs in the initial frame in a rivalry opener between the teams since they moved West in 1958. Here are some other notable highlights from past opening games. April 16, 1962: The Giants scored early and often, building a 12-3 lead after six. They scored seven more in the seventh and took a 19-3 lead into the ninth. The Dodgers rallied for five, but fell 19-3. April 7, 1977: The game marked Tommy Lasorda’s first as a manager after the 23-year reign of Walter Alston. The Dodgers got the Lasorda era off to a good start with a 5-1 win. Lasorda showed he would bring entertainment to the rivalry, as he got Frank Sinatra to sing the national anthem for the Dodger Stadium crowd. Sinatra stayed partial, however, and showed up at San Francisco eight days later to toss out the ceremonial first pitch at the Giants home opener against the Dodgers. April 11, 1986: This was perhaps the wildest opener, as the Giants took an 8-1 lead after six innings, only to see the Dodgers come back to tie it in the ninth. The Giants scored the winning run in the 12th for a 9-8 victory. July 3, 1998: A terrible new scheduling format limited the Giants-Dodgers to only 12 meetings that year. After a hot pennant race in 1997, the clubs didn’t meet for the first time until July 3, just before the All-Star break. Orel Hershiser got his first win as a Giant, as he beat his former club 6-3. April 11, 2000: Bit player Kevin Elster ruined the party at the opening of the Giants new ball park, taking center stage with a three-homer performance that helped the Dodgers to a 6-5 win.

* The best moment of this past weekend’s series came before the games. Dodgers’ announcing legend Vin Scully made the ceremonial first pitch to the great No. 32, Dodgers’ pitching legend Sandy Koufax. Minutes later, Ryan Vogelsong, who also wears No. 32,  took the mound for the Giants. Vogelsong couldn’t make it through the fifth inning despite being given an 8-0 lead, and blamed lazy mechanics for his poor outing. But that wasn’t it. On this day, the Baseball Gods decided that this day could only be about one No. 32, so Vogelsong never really had a chance.

* I started wondering whether the new flamboyant Dodger star was dead, because every story referred to him as the “late Yasiel Puig.” Fortunately, that reference was about Puig being tardy for the opener, which led manager Don Mattingly to bench him. Puig explained  his lack of promptness to having the starting time wrong. As the great lawyer Alan Dershowitz says when evaluating someone’s questionable story, “That doesn’t pass the giggle test.” What really made Puig late? And for a guy who drives 110 in a 70 mph zone, and 97 in a 50 mph zone, how the heck could he late for anything? Footnote: Puig has taken the early league lead in public apologies, both for his mea culpa about the speeding and for being late.

* The Dodgers can survive for a time without injured ace Clayton Kershaw, but can they win big-time without him? It also remains unclear just how long he’ll be sidelined. He would have started the opener, and it’s unlikely the Giants would have jumped on him for the quick six they put up against Hyun-Jin Ryu. There are also questions about the back end of the rotation, although the Dodgers have the cash to find reinforcements if needed. The Dodgers bullpen, even with the loss for now of set-up man Brian Wilson, looks deep and solid. After the Giants KO’d Ryu, four Dodgers relievers no-hit the Giants for seven innings while striking out 10. In game three, the Dodgers bullpen blanked the Giants over the final three innings while striking out six. The return of Matt Kemp and his two homers in that game are a sign of the Dodgers firepower. If the Dodgers lineup stays healthy, and Puig can be settled down, Los Angeles still appears to be the team to beat.

* It’s hard to make an argument that the Giants lineup won’t keep the clubs in games this year. While staying healthy is always an issue with any team, keys for the Giants are keeping leadoff hitter Angel Pagan and new slugging leftfielder Michael Morse in the lineup as much as possible. This gives the Giants a nice one-through-seven lineup so they don’t have to totally rely on pitching. That might be a good thing because the jury is still out on the Giants rotation. The three Dodgers homers off Matt Cain seem eerily familiar to what Giants fans saw last year, and there already is a clock ticking about how long the Giants will stick with Vogelsong. The Giants are also as curious as the rest of the Giants fans about whether the “new” Tim Lincecum will be enough to solidify the No. 3 spot in the rotation. Madison Bumgarner had a less-than-stellar first game, and needed the bullpen to bail him out against the Dodgers despite a solid lead, though he’ll likely return to top form.

Beyond all the analysis, the three games between the rivals felt good. In fact, the games were only marred by the appearance of beach balls and the wave in the Dodger Stadium stands. The clubs play three more in a week in San Francisco, where the sellout crowds are expected to give the Dodgers much verbal grief. The six early matchups still won’t be enough of a sample size to determine how this race will turn out, but they could further the fun of speculating whether the six games the clubs will play against each other in September will lead to one of those rare all-out fights to the finish.


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