NL West Report: Showdown Series In Los Angeles

It’s fair to say there are no truly big baseball series in May, but it’s also fair to say that some are bigger than others, and surely one of those that at least catches the eye is the one starting tonight between the Giants and Dodgers in Los Angeles. The NL West standings show LAD holding a four-game lead over San Fran. TheSportsNotebook takes a look ahead at this series, as well as the rest of the division…

Both Los Angeles and San Francisco are swinging the bats better than expected, ranking sixth and ninth in the National League respectively when it comes to scoring runs. But the Giants have lost third baseman Pablo Sandoval—as has my Fantasy team—to a broken bone in his hand. Buster Posey, whose overall numbers are good, has been in a funk for the past week. Ultimately the problem San Francisco is dealing with is that they don’t get runners on base consistently. Their respectable results in scoring runs have been more about hitting for power, both home runs and into the gaps thus far. That’s less likely to sustain itself over the long haul to begin with, and even less likely without Sandoval, the team’s most complete offensive player.

As long as we’re on the subject of unsustainable, we may as well shift over to Los Angeles centerfielder Matt Kemp. His start to the season is in the stratosphere, with a MLB-leading 12 home runs, a .470 on-base percentage and .816 slugging percentage. You can believe in Kemp—I thought he should have been NL MVP last year—and still acknowledge that these numbers will come down and pretty sharply, just bringing him back to the human race. Someone is going to have to pick it up. And someone who’s started is shortstop Dee Gordon, who hit .316 the first week in May, including three doubles and a home run. The Dodgers are also getting surprising production from the unrelated Ellis boys—second baseman Mark and catcher A.J. might not hit for power, but they churn out on-base percentage. Finally, we come to Andre Ethier, the rightfielder who is Scottie Pippen to Kemp’s Michael Jordan, and Ethier is swinging a good bat right now.

The bullpens are a little iffy both ways right now. Santiago Casilla has become the closer for the Giants in the wake of Brian Wilson’s season-ending injury and is doing an admirable job, But the team hasn’t taken advantage of its formidable bullpen depth to get the job done in front of the closer. Los Angeles is the reverse—Kenley Jansen and Josh Lindblom are pitching well in setup, while Javy Guerra has been inconsistent at closer.

Therefore the attention shifts, as it should with these two teams to the starting pitching. The matchups for this series are as follows…

Mon: Barry Zito-Ted Lilly
Tue: Ryan Vogelsong-Clayton Kershaw
Wed: Tim Lincecum-Chad Billingsley

All three LA pitchers are having good years, as is Zito. Vogelsong, and especially Lincecum, got off to slow starts, but each has settled down their last three outings. Thus, we can conclude we’ll get good-pitched games, and the spacious environment of Dodger Stadium will only aid that. All six pitchers are averaging about six innings a start, and with the bullpens question marks, the series can be won by the starter(s) who picks his team up and just gives one extra inning above the average and gets the pen into the eighth, where the depth issues won’t be so evident.

The only this series is really landscape-altering is if it’s a sweep either way—the Giants could pull to within one and send the message that the race is on, or fall seven out and have their back to the wall quickly. But even if it follows the norm and goes 2 of 3 either way, both teams are likely to be fighting each other for some type of playoff position throughout the year, be it one of the two wild-cards or an NL West crown. The wins you get now are the ones you don’t sweat in September.

Here’s the rundown on the other three teams in the NL West. Their records are in parentheses and by way of comparison the Dodgers are 18-10 and the Giants 14-14…

Arizona (14-15): I continue to believe that Arizona can’t be unhappy. They survived a 10-game Eastern road swing with a 5-5 record and they host San Francisco on the weekend with a possible chance to move into second. The start of the week won’t be easy with St. Louis in town. Just last week, TheSportsNotebook discussed the problems the D-Backs were having at the corner infield spots. As though responding to criticism, young first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, opened up, hitting .333 over the past week and  third baseman Ryan Roberts went 4-of-14 with a home run. Cody Ransom, who can bounce between third and short, continued to hit well, going 5-for-14 with a couple home runs. I’ll be sending a bill to Kirk Gibson for my motivational ploys.

Colorado (12-15): A series win over the Dodgers early last week proved to be just a drop in the desert, as the Rockies’ pitching was quickly hit hard by Atlanta in a three-game sweep over the weekend. Troy Tulowitzki and Todd Helton are slumping—Helton particularly slow, and Carlos Gonzalez has the burden of carrying the offense. This team needs to get its pitchers healthy, especially Jorge de la Rosa and Jeremy Guthrie. The bright spot is young Drew Pomeranz, with four starts and a 4.05 ERA, including a strong outing against Los Angeles last Wednesday.

San Diego (9-20): The Padres have some guys hitting, with Yonder Alonso spraying the ball, and Cameron Maybin and Chris Denorfia both looking in rhythm, but none have home run power and other than Edinson Volquez, the pitching shows no signs of coming around. The Padres play the Rockies at home to start the week, so just as there’s a key series at the top, we also have one at the bottom as San Diego tries to avoid making last place a settled issue in this division.