Dodgers-Giants once again year's best rivalry and best race

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The Dodgers and Giants are the oldest rivalry in professional sports, one that dates back to 1884. They are at it again this year in what is shaping up to be the best divisional race in baseball. Entering play on Wednesday, the age-old rivals were tied atop the National League West with matching 64-53 records and no guarantee of a Wild Card safety net as the Pirates, despite being crushed by Los Angeles 11-0 on Tuesday night, currently sit in the second NL Wild Card spot, a half-game above both West Coast challengers at 64-52.

This could be special. Though their rivalry dates back to the Benjamin Harrison presidency, when the Dodgers were the Brooklyn Bridegrooms of the American Association, and although it gave us one of the game's most iconic moments in Bobby Thompson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World" in 1951, and although it remained intact when the two teams switched coasts in 1958, the Dodgers and Giants aren't often good at the same time.

In fact, in the 40 seasons since San Francisco beat L.A. by just one game to win the third-ever National League West title in 1971, the two teams have finished in the top two spots in the division just three times, one of those coming in 1994, when the strike eliminated the pennant races altogether. Both finished within two games of first place in 1982, but it was the Braves who won the West. And while they combined to win three straight division titles from 1987-89 and 2008-2010, they never finished 1-2 in any of those seasons.

The last time the two battled each other for the division crown came in 2004, with L.A. eking out the title by two games, but that was back when the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry dominated the game. This year, however, Dodgers and Giants have the spotlight to themselves, at least when it comes to age-old rivalries playing out in the daily standings.

It has been an interesting journey to this point. The Dodgers jumped out to an early lead, winning nine of their first 10 games and opening up a 7½-game lead over the Giants by May 26, but the tables turned in a big way in June and the Giants managed to tie for first with a three-game sweep of the Dodgers in San Francisco at the end of the month. Both teams have been just 21-20 since then, but the third-place Diamondbacks, who dropped to .500 with a loss to the Cardinals on Tuesday, have proven unable to take advantage of that mediocre play. Arizona remains 5½ games behind the two rivals, and internal improvements and deadline additions have both Los Angeles and San Francisco off to solid starts in August and looking strong for the stretch run.

For the Dodgers, the most important thing has been the return to health of Matt Kemp, whose landmark April was a key to their hot start, and whose subsequent hamstring injury and re-injury coincided with their worst stretch of the season. Kemp returned to the lineup immediately following the All-Star break on July 13 and has hit .363/.406/.565 since. Unfortunately, the Dodgers haven't received much production from Andre Ethier, who was activated the same day, or second baseman Mark Ellis, who returned a week earlier. They did, however, manage to upgrade the left side of their infield and leftfield at the trading deadline by adding Hanley Ramirez and Shane Victorino. Neither has significantly improved up on their disappointing pre-acquisition numbers, but both filled huge holes in the Dodger lineup and thus represent upgrades nonetheless. After their win in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, the Dodgers are now 8-4 in August and 16-9 over their last 25 games, a stretch which includes a three-game sweep of the Giants in San Francisco at the end of July during which L.A. outscored their rivals 19-3.

As for the Giants, the most significant change in their fortunes has been the post-break performance of fallen ace Tim Lincecum. Lincecum went 3-10 with a 6.42 ERA in the first half, but has posted a 2.72 ERA in six second-half starts while the Giants, who won just four of Lincecum's first 18 starts this season, have gone 4-2 in his last six. At the deadline they added Victorino's former Philadelphia teammate Hunter Pence -- who went 3-for-4 on Tuesday and looks like he might finally be breaking out of his month-and-a-half-long slump -- and veteran infielder Marco Scutaro, who should be an upgrade on Ryan Theriot at second base. On Tuesday, they activated All-Star third baseman Pablo Sandoval from the disabled list. Meanwhile, catcher Buster Posey has out-hit Kemp -- and everyone else for that matter -- since the break, raking to a .441/.520/.775 clip since July 13.

The Dodgers have won five of the nine head-to-head matchups this season and the two will play nine more times -- one-fifth of the 45 games both have remaining -- this year. The first of those comes in Los Angeles next Monday through Wednesday. Next is a three-game set in San Francisco September 7 through 9, and finally, a season-ending matchup at Dodger Stadium from October 1 through 3.

One key down the stretch will be Giants manager Bruce Bochy's handling of what has proven to be a problematic end-game in the wake of closer Brian Wilson's Tommy John surgery. The good news for San Francisco is that it has lost just one game in which it has scored more than three runs since July 6. So, the Giants aren't losing games they should have won, but in order to keep putting themselves in a winning position, Sandoval and Pence are going to have to step up to keep the offense ticking once Posey's inevitable cooling off occurs.

However it shakes out, this is good for baseball. That is in part because it is a compelling divisional race in a season in which only one other features teams within fewer than four games of each other (the White Sox lead the Tigers by two games in the AL Central), and also because the added Wild Card, despite placing renewed emphasis on winning the division, has distracted from that pursuit by creating some crowded and complicated races for the two bonus playoff spots.

It's also good because it's a reminder that the Yankees and Red Sox aren't the only teams with long histories and meaningful rivals. Before there ever was such a thing as a division in major league baseball, the Dodgers and Giants twice faced off against each other in a playoff series to determine the pennant winner (in 1951 and 1962). Their state of their rivalry dates back even farther than some of the states: North and South Dakota, Washington and Montana gained statehood in November 1889, roughly a week after the New York Giants beat the Brooklyn Bridegrooms for the World Series championship.