Giants at Dodgers Series Preview

Giants at Dodgers Series Preview
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The Dodgers’ only misstep thus far this season—which is more than 20 percent completed, making today roughly equivalent to the second week of May in a normal season—was their season-opening four-game split with the Giants at Dodger Stadium. The Giants, a rebuilding team that had just put veteran corner men Brandon Belt and Evan Longoria on the injured list, ran out what looked like a Triple-A lineup against arguably the best team in baseball. The first two games went as expected, with the Dodgers winning both by a combined score of 17-2, but L.A. stumbled in the last two. Alex Wood, since sidelined by shoulder inflammation, struggled in game three, and the powerful Dodgers offense went flat, scoring just five runs in the final two games combined, both Giants wins.

Any concerns that arose from those two losses to San Francisco have since proved to be unfounded. The Dodgers are fourth in the majors in runs scored thus far (behind the Astros, Padres, and Yankees), averaging 5.4 runs per game, and Dave Roberts made better use of his bench on the team’s just-completed road trip after seeming reluctant to pinch-hit in the opening series. The Dodgers went 7-2 on that trip, wrapping it up by taking two of three from an impressive young Padres team despite Mookie Betts never coming to bat due to a swollen middle finger on his left hand.

The Giants, meanwhile, have gone 4-6 since leaving L.A., dropping five of seven against the Padres and Rockies around taking two of three at home against the Rangers. The Giants are overachieving slightly, in that they have thus far had an above-average offense. Sophomore centerfielder Mike Yastrzemski has led that charge, batting .319/.467/.638 with three homers and 13 walks through 14 games. Veteran journeyman Donovan Solano has since claimed the second base job, going 20-for-43 (.465) with a team-best six doubles. Belt and Longoria are back in action and contributing, as well. However, Belt typically sits against lefties, two of whom—Julio Urías and Clayton Kershaw—will open this weekend’s three-game rematch for the Dodgers.

New Giants skipper Gabe Kapler has made extensive use of platoons thus far. The Giants’ typical lineup against lefties looks like the following, though Kapler is likely to stray from this slightly in each of the first two games this weekend:

R – Austin Slater (RF)

R – Wilmer Flores (1B)

L – Mike Yastrzemski (CF)

R – Hunter Pence (LF)

R – Evan Longoria (3B)

R – Donovan Solano (2B)

R – Darin Ruf (DH)

R – Chadwick Tromp (C)

R – Mauricio Dubón (SS)

More than half of that lineup is likely to switch over against righty Walker Buehler on Sunday, with Belt back at first base, Brandon Crawford back at shortstop, and Alex Dickerson in left field, all lefties, and switch-hitters Pablo Sandoval and Tyler Heineman at designated hitter and catcher, respectively.

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Here are the pitching matchups and game times:

Fri. 8/7, 6:40 p.m. PDT: RHP Jeff Samardzija (9.31 ERA, 9 2/3 IP) vs. LHP Julio Urías (2.45 ERA, 11 IP)

Sat. 8/8, 6:10 p.m. PDT: RHP Johnny Cueto (4.97 ERA, 12 2/3 IP) vs. LHP Clayton Kershaw (0.00 ERA, 5 2/3 IP)

Sun. 8/9, 1:10 p.m. PDT: RHP Kevin Gausman (5.27 ERA, 13 2/3 IP) vs. RHP Walker Buehler (5.19 ERA, 8 2/3 IP)

Samardzija and rookie lefty reliever Sam Selman are the only pitchers on the Giants’ active roster who didn’t appear in the season-opening series. Selman did throw 4 2/3 scoreless innings against the Dodgers in three appearances last September. Samardzija has been awful thus far this season, allowing 10 runs in 9 2/3 innings across two starts, with more home runs allowed (three) than strikeouts (two). His velocity is down, averaging just 90 miles per hour, and a blister has limited his ability to throw his splitter. Both could be early tells Friday night.

Cueto held the Dodgers to one run over four innings on Opening Day, but hasn’t been as effective since, allowing seven runs (six earned) and walking five in 8 2/3 innings over his last two starts. He has cranked up that shimmy to absurd degrees, however, so Saturday’s Cueto-Kershaw matchup promises to be fun to watch. If you can only catch one of these three games, make it that one.

Gausman pitched in a headliner/follower role in the second game against the Dodgers, allowing three runs (two earned) over four frames, including a solo homer by Max Muncy. Gausman has since moved into the rotation proper with similar results but superior peripherals. On the season, he has struck out 17 against just two walks and two homers in 13 2/3 innings only to be stymied by a .385 batting average on balls in play.

That last speaks to the Giants’ lousy fielding. The Giants are 23rd in the majors in defensive efficiency (the rate of turning balls in play into outs) and lead the majors with 15 errors in 14 games (tied in both categories with the Royals, making 2014 feel like a century ago). That poor and sloppy play has contributed to the fact that only the Mariners have been worse at preventing runs overall. The Giants have allowed 5.7 runs per game. The Dodgers, by comparison, have been the second stingiest team in the majors, allowing just 2.85. Given that, we can expect the coming series to look more like the first two games of the season than the next two, particularly as the Dodgers seek to redeem themselves for that early stumble.

As I type these words, we don’t yet know if Mookie Betts will be ready to return to the lineup Friday night, though he remains available as a defensive replacement. In other news, rosters were reduced from 30 to 28 men on Thursday, where they will remain for the remainder of the season and into the playoffs (Major League Baseball scrapped the plan to go down to 26 in the wake of the Marlins and Cardinals outbreaks). The Dodgers sent rookie Zach McKinstry, who did not get into a game in his brief time on the roster, and lefty reliever Adam Kolarek, who had not appeared in a game since the calendar flipped to August, to the alternate training Site at USC to comply with the new limit.

As for the Giants, the players who appeared in the opening series who are no longer on San Francisco’s active roster include outfielders Jaylin Davis, Joe McCarthy, and Steven Duggar, southpaw Drew Smyly, and right-winger Samuel Coonrod.

Cliff Corcoran covers baseball for The Athletic and is a former lead baseball writer for SI.com. The co-author or editor of 13 baseball books, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he has also written for USA Today, SB Nation, Baseball Prospectus, Sports on Earth, The Hardball Times, and Boston.com, among others. He has been a semi-regular guest analyst on the MLB Network and can be heard more regularly on The Infinite Inning podcast with Steven Goldman. Follow Cliff on Twitter @CliffCorcoran.