The Dodgers and Giants are having an epic pennant race – but one will be relegated to historic runner-up
Like a stressed commuter weaving through lanes of traffic, the Los Angeles Dodgers have furiously pursued their rivals all summer, and now into an autumn that may yield a most distasteful outcome for baseball’s most expensive and talented roster.
All gas, no breaks.
The San Francisco Giants cannot lose, or so it often seems, and as their troupe of seasoned and unlikely heroes stare down a suddenly plausible National League West title, the Dodgers are left to fret over a wild-card game they’d rather not play and wonder just what it takes to win the division.
This Giants-Dodgers race is closing in on unprecedented territory, and with just nine games remaining, San Francisco (99-54) holds a one-game advantage over L.A. (98-55). Should the clubs maintain their breakneck pace, it will leave one club as the most decorated – and reluctant – wild-card team in the history of the format.
A look at this race by the numbers that matter most, from what the clubs have already accomplished – and what’s to come:
Games Dodgers are on pace to win, which would be the most of any second-place finisher since the wild-card format was introduced in 1995.
With two more victories, they'll be the third wild-card team to win at least 100 games and just the second in the two-wild card era, joining the 2018 Yankees, who won 100 games and beat Oakland in the one-game playoff before getting dusted by a 108-win Red Sox team in the American League Division Series.
While much has been made of the Dodgers facing a one-game elimination game after such a prosperous season, an ostensibly more forgiving format did no favors to the other 100-win wild cards, who each had the luxury of a best-of-five division series. The 2018 Yankees went out in four games while the 102-win, 2001 Oakland A's lost in five to the Yankees (who, lest we forget, were spurred on by Derek Jeter’s flip).
Should the Dodgers hit the 104-win mark and finish second, they’d be the winningest team to fail to win its division since…the 1993 Giants, who had no wild card to fall back on and went home after finishing a game behind the 104-win Atlanta Braves in the West.
Dodgers’ winning percentage since Aug. 1, the best in baseball. In ordinary times, their 35-12 stretch would be good enough to chase anybody down, right?
Alas, the Giants have the second-best mark – 34-15, .694 - in that span. And as you’ll see, the clubs’ lockstep nature has been particularly maddening for the Dodgers and their fans.
Percentage of days, since July 30, that the Dodgers and Giants both posted the same result, not counting head-to-head matchups. After the Dodgers added Max Scherzer and Trea Turner at the deadline, and the Giants snagged Kris Bryant, San Francisco held a three-game lead. The teams then proceeded to win or lose in lockstep for 12 of the next 14 days on which both teams played.
And thus the NL West lead has looked as steady as a U.S. Government bond, the Giants only briefly stretching their lead to five games, the Dodgers just once claiming a half-game lead that lasted less than 24 hours. Since Sept. 5, the Giants have held first all alone, their lead never more than 2 ½ games.
And reality has been even more tenuous than that.
Giants wins in their final at-bat this month.
With no clubhouse access for the media this year due to COVID-19 concerns, players have been free to express themselves without tipping the emotional tenor of the team, and leaving the general public to guess what might be said behind closed doors.
For the Dodgers, it’s probably sounded something like this: “Those (bleeping) (bleeps) (bleeping) won again?!”
Perhaps no date was as soul-crushing for the Dodgers as Sept. 17, when they lost at Cincinnati but saw Atlanta rally to take a ninth-inning lead at San Francisco. Down to their final out, the Giants summoned Donovan Solano for his first at-bat in three weeks after the vaccinated utilityman suffered a breakthrough COVID-19 case.
He homered. Two innings later, pitcher Kevin Gausman hit a walk-off sacrifice fly.
And in 30-plus hotel rooms in Cincinnati, there were probably 30 or so variations of, “You have GOT to be kidding me!” ringing out.
But you think they’d be used to it by now.
Pinch-hit home runs for the Giants this season.
If the 100-win season wasn’t enough for Gabe Kapler to command the NL Manager of the Year trophy, his late-innings button-pushing should put him over the top. Thursday, Austin Slater came off the bench to hit a sixth-inning, three-run homer that was the Giants' 17th pinch-hit blast of the year, tying the 2016 St. Louis Cardinals for most in major league history.
The longballs are but one piece of the Giants’ late-game magic. First baseman/outfielder LaMonte Wade Jr. has six go-ahead hits in the ninth inning or later this season, and he’s batting .600 (15 for 25) in those situations.
The Giants are 10-8 in extra innings, 29-16 in one-run games; the Dodgers are 6-13 and 23-24, respectively, though they’ve won five of their last six extra-inning games after losing nine of their first 10.
Games remaining for each team, beginning Friday. Both play three each against San Diego and Arizona; the Giants have a three-game set at Colorado and the Dodgers finish at home against the Central-leading Brewers.
So, how many wins will it take to claim the division? The Dodgers probably need at least a 7-2 finishing kick to at least force a one-game playoff at San Francisco for the division title.
And that would be a fitting conclusion to a historic race.