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Dodgers close 9 1/2 game NL West gap in three weeks as Giants tumble

Photo: Chris Williams/Icon SMI

Clayton Kershaw hasn't given up a run in 28 innings, and is 4-0 with a 0.29 ERA in his last four starts.

The 9 1/2-game lead the San Francisco Giants had in the National League West on the morning of June 9 is gone. It took just 19 games for it to vanish, the last of those being a 4-0 shutout at the hands of Homer Bailey and the Reds on Sunday that completed a four-game sweep. That, in conjunction with the Dodgers shutting out the Cardinals 6-0 behind yet another dominant outing by Clayton Kershaw, resulted in the two age-old rivals being once again tied atop the division.

Here’s a snapshot of how things have gone over the last 21 days:

Team W-L Pct. RS RA
Giants 4-15 .211 3.1 5.0
Dodgers 14-6 .700 4.1 2.5

As those numbers demonstrate, the Giants are a complete mess right now. With Angel Pagan joining Brandon Belt and Marco Scutaro on the disabled list on Wednesday, they are playing without more than a third of their intended starting lineup, three-fifths of their starting rotation has an ERA+ of 85 or lower -- including fallen aces Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum -- and manager Bruce Bochy announced on Sunday that Sergio Romo has lost his job as the team’s closer.

It took Romo just two batters to turn a 1-0 lead into a 2-1 deficit Saturday night, resulting in his third blown save in his last five chances. In his last 16 appearances dating back to May 11, Romo has blown five save chances, posted a 9.00 ERA and allowed his opponents to hit .290/.343/.532 against him. On the year, Romo’s strikeout rate is down and his walk rate is up for the third straight season, while his home run rate has more than doubled — the six home runs he has allowed in 33 games tie his previous full-season high. For now, Bochy said, the Giants will play matchups in the ninth inning, with Santiago Casilla and Jeremy Affeldt likely the leading righty and lefty, respectively.

The good news for the Giants is that they hope to get their injured regulars back soon. Per the San Francisco Chronicle’s Henry Schulman (linked above), Pagan, did “a bunch of baseball activity” Sunday morning and could be activated on Tuesday. Belt and Scutaro have both begun rehab assignments, with Belt (broken thumb) also eligible to return on Tuesday, though Bochy indicated Friday is a more realistic target. The 38-year-old Scutaro hasn’t played all season due to a lower back strain, so his rehab could progress even more slowly, but the hope remains the Giants lineup could be whole for the first time this season in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, the Giants are trying to stem the tide with rookie Adam Duvall at first base and the aptly named Joe Panik at second, the latter replacing Brandon Hicks, who has hit .108/.221/.189 since May 21 and is 0-for-his-last-17. Duvall is a 25-year-old third baseman who hit .297/.360/.620 with 23 home runs in 67 games for Triple-A Fresno before making his debut on Thursday, but is not considered a significant prospect. Panik, 23, was the team’s top pick in the 2011 draft, but his stock had fallen sharply, along with his batting lines, before he perked up this year with a .321/.382/.447 line for Fresno. The two are hitting a combined .162/.205/.297 in 39 major league at-bats.

The struggles of the Giants’ rotation make it all the more frustrating that Sunday's loss came in a game in which Tim Hudson pitched a gem. Hudson held the Reds to one run through eight innings without walking a batter before giving up a leadoff single in the top of the ninth, then watched as Affeldt allowed that run and three more to score. Affeldt wasn’t the only Giant to let Hudson down, however. The lineup as a whole was no-hit for 6 2/3 innings by Homer Bailey before Buster Posey poked an opposite-field single with two outs in the seventh. Posey was one of just three Giants to reach base in the game, all by singles. Bailey went the distance for his first complete game and just his second scoreless start (the other coming in April and lasting six innings) of what has been a disappointing season for the 28-year-old in the first year of his new, six-year, $105 million extension.

Speaking of scoreless outings, Clayton Kershaw’s scoreless innings streak is now at 28 following his seven frames against the Cardinals on Sunday during which he racked up 13 strikeouts. Kershaw last allowed a run in the third inning on June 13, the start before his no-hitter. Since then, he has thrown 28 innings allowing 14 hits and four walks while striking out 37.

As the table above shows, the Dodgers’ pitching is what has allowed them to take advantage of the Giants’ collapse. Kershaw, 4-0 with a 0.29 ERA in four starts over those last 21 days, has obviously been leading the way, but the rejuvenated Josh Beckett (1.00 ERA over the same span with three scoreless outings of six or more innings, all in Dodgers wins) has been the team’s surprising No. 2. The Dodgers have also been helped by Brian Wilson shaking off his early season struggles to allow just one run in his last 18 appearances, reducing his walk rate and reintroducing his curveball.

Their offense, however, isn’t keeping up. Despite Matt Kemp finding his old form and A.J. Ellis working his on-base magic, Hanley Ramirez has played just three innings since last Monday due to shoulder and calf injuries. Adrian Gonzalez, who had two hits Sunday, one of which was a bunt against the shift, has hit just .215/.274/.323 over 216 plate appearances dating back to May 2. Yasiel Puig has gone 123 plate appearances without a home run, hitting .257/.333/.349 over that span. Andre Ethier homered on Sunday, but that was his first round-tripper since May 27, and even with Sunday’s home run included, he has a mere .202/.245/.292 line over that span.

So despite the two rivals’ disparate records over the last three weeks, neither is a sure thing to continue on its current course. The Giants could rebound with Pagan, Belt, and Scutaro back in the lineup. Likewise, the Dodgers could start to scuffle if Kershaw and Beckett cool off (which they will eventually, at least to some degree), Ramirez misses significant time, or Wilson’s pitching reverts to something more akin to his appearance.
 
Then there’s the ever-present possibility of one team or the other making an impact move prior to the non-waiver trading deadline. Curiously, most of that time will have elapsed before the two teams, which last faced each other May 11, meet again in a three-game set at Dodger Stadium beginning July 25, after which they won’t meet again until September 12. Regardless of who is in first place when those July games arrive, the division could very well still be on the line in that series.

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