By Morris Phillips
You don’t want to finish second. For the Giants and the Dodgers, winning the NL West is paramount.
Barring a minor miracle–but also a real possibility–the first postseason meeting of the long time rivals begins on Friday, October 8, a full four days after the regular season ends on that previous Sunday. The best case scenario for both teams: they win the NL West outright, and get all four of those days to rest and set up their Operation World Series ’21 war room in which they align their rotations, rest key regulars and stay out of COVID protocols. Beyond that, the NL West winner would have time to develop a strategy to derail their rival in a seven-game series, then roll two more high-level opponents on their way to a Series title.
Now back to the minor miracle/real possibility that could evaporate one of these two 100 plus-win teams before October 8: a loss to the St. Louis Cardinals, the almost certain, second wild card entrant currently riding an eight-game win streak that has all but retired the competition with two weeks remaining in the regular season. What would the Cardinals have to do to pull an upset? Summon the perpetual youth tonic for 40-year old Adam Wainwright and his battery mate, 39-year old Yadier Molina, who would be slotted to pitch and catch the Wednesday, October 6 wild card game as the only pair manager Mike Schildt–or the state of Missouri–would trust in such a situation. In a separate slice of baseball history, Wainwright and Molina have paired as battery mates 298 times. The October 6 clash would see them likely pairing for the 301st time, which ranks fourth in major league history for the most prolific catcher and pitcher pairings.
Wainright (16-7, 2.89 ERA) has a win against both the Dodgers and Giants this season (beating Los Angeles at Busch Stadium on September 8) although he was roughed up in the rematch against the Giants on July 16.
Think the stakes are high in these final two weeks for the Giants and Dodgers? Think higher.
The Giants are trying to secure the apex of their franchise history (which dates back to 1883 as the New York Gothams) by winning a fourth World Series in 12 seasons, a rash of success never accomplished by a franchise that’s won eight titles in 137 seasons.
For the Dodgers, who have had far more success at this level, this would mark some level of redemption after their well-chronicled postseason flame outs beginning in 2013. On the line for the Dodgers: an unprecedented ninth, consecutive division title, back-to-back Series titles, and the fulfillment of their stature as the team widely considered to be Major League baseball’s best.
Currently, the Giants have a one-game lead with 12 games remaining for both contenders. The teams will be on the road this week, and home next week, six road games then six home games. Amazingly, Baseball-Reference–the premiere MLB website chronicling the game’s history and all of its current metrics–favors the Giants to win the division with a 104-58 record, besting the Dodgers, who according to their database, are most likely to finish 103-59.
If you been following this race intently, you know those won-loss figures are extremely conservative and predict that neither team will win at their current clips, which are best described as torrid. The Dodgers since losing six of nine (four of those six losses to the Giants) at the end of July, have won 34 of 45. The Giants have won 13 of their last 17 ballgames after a four-game losing streak spanning the end of August and beginning of September.
Most likely, both managers (Gabe Kapler and Dave Roberts) are hoping for fast finishes with a record of 9-3 or better. For the Giants (97-53) that’s the safe spot. 106 wins should be the number the Dodgers can’t match. Of course, 105 might be just what the doctor ordered for the Dodgers (96-52). Obviously, it’s just that close.
Now for what might happen after game 162 with the caveat that neither of these teams is fearful of playing a big game in the other team’s ballpark. Both have had too much success, and have won too consistently (with pitching) to feel any other way. That’s why one (Los Angeles) or both teams may not scared to finish second, and get ready for the postseason without the burden of overusing their bullpens, starters or key starters.
But here’s why they would.
Playing on Monday–Game 163–burns a critical starter who would otherwise be primed to pitch Game 1 of the NLDS. For the Giants, based on how the rotations are set up (and there’s little reason for either team to dramatically juggle their rotations with the aces in line to pitch the final weekend or on that following Monday) Logan Webb would likely be a one-game playoff starter, Julio Urias (18-3, 2.99, the NL Cy Young favorite) would be most likely for the Dodgers.
The loser of Game 163 would then host the Wild Card game Wednesday and assume the challenge presented by the Cardinals. Then after burning two prime starters, they would open the NLDS as the visitor on Friday.
Does the second place scenario offer a reasonable path for success? Sure, for either of these balanced clubs. But potentially, playing eight, consecutive Dodgers-Giants games doesn’t set you up to play exceptional baseball for three weeks–against two, more formidable opponents–after that.
So, in conclusion… if 2021 is your year, the “your” part starts now.
And the quote of the weekend from Kris Bryant of the Giants: “I feel like we’ve been playing great baseball, and they have been matching us. That’s annoying.”
On Tuesday, the Giants open up a three-game set in San Diego against the frustrated, fussing, faltering Padres with Kevin Gausman facing Joe Musgrove. Gausman will be pitching with four days rest, Musgrove with five.