Saturday September 13th, 2014

They erupted with chants of “BEAT LA,” they waved orange towels, they rose and cheered for every pivotal at bat. It was a playoff atmosphere Friday night at AT&T Park, where the Dodgers and Giants faced off in the first game of a massive mid-September three-game tilt,  with just two games separating the two teams in the NL West. The last time the Dodgers visited AT&T Park, in late July, they swept the Giants to overtake their rivals atop the division. The Giants were a very different team then: Angel Pagan was on the DL, Travis Ishikawa was in Triple-A Fresno, Tim Lincecum was in the rotation, and Dan Uggla (remember him?) was the bumbling second baseman.

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Now? The Giants don’t just look like the best team in their division. They look like the best team in the entire league. Matt Cain is out for the year and Lincecum has been banished to the bullpen, but the Giants keep winning, and now they are on the verge of catching the Dodgers in the NL West.  After their 9-0 romp over the Dodgers on Friday, the Giants are now just one game behind the Dodgers in the NL West, which is the closest they’ve been to first place since Aug. 4. They remain atop the Wild Card standings and four games ahead of the Pirates for the top overall wild card spot. With the win the Giants extended their season-high home winning streak to 10 games, and during this 10-game home win streak, the Giants have outscored their opponents by a whopping 67-14 margin.

Bruce Bochy’s boys are peaking at just the right time. You don’t hear too much about the Giants offense, and yet it has quietly been one of the best in baseball since the All-Star break, ranking first in runs per game (4.74), team batting average (.281) and second in team OPS (.745). On Friday, the Giants jumped on Dodgers starter Hyun-Jin Ryu early, batting around in the first, scoring four runs to give Bumgarner an early 4-0 lead. Brandon Crawford hit his ninth home run of the season, a two-run shot in the bottom of the fifth, Ishikawa launched a three-run homer into the San Francisco Bay in the seventh and Buster Posey continued to be the hottest hitter on the planet. With an RBI double, a single, and a walk on the night, he is now batting .464 (39-for-84) with seven homers and 25 RBI in his last 20 games -- the best of any player in the majors since August 20.

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And yes, the Giants can still pitch. A night after Jake Peavy dominated the Diamondbacks, Madison Bumgarner tossed seven brilliant shutout innings, allowing just three hits while striking out nine. "MadBum" won his 18th game of the year on Friday, his fifth straight win, and lowered his ERA to .291. He’s looking like a guy who can match up with any of the other big NL aces in a postseason series, whether it’s Clayton Kershaw, Adam Wainwright, or Stephen Strasburg. With Cain and Lincecum out of the rotation, Bumgarner, still just 25, has firmly established himself as the ace of the staff and one of the game’ elite pitchers. With his first punch out of the night in the first, Bumgarner reached 200 strikeouts for the first time in his career, and with his strikeout of Juan Uribe to start the seventh, the lefty set the record for most strikeouts by a Giants lefthander (208).

In July, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly lined up the rotation so that Kershaw, Ryu and Zach Greinke would pitch in the series in San Francisco. The strategy worked last time, and Mattingly did it again for this weekend, but the Giants now have already won game one of the series this time around. With two more wins this weekend, they could be in first place in the division for the first time since July 25. On Saturday, Greinke will face Tim Hudson, and on Sunday, Kershaw faces Yusmeiro Petit, who threw 84 pitches in a complete game win over the Diamondbacks in his last start. The series, and the NL West race, is heating up. 

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