The NL West Is Deeply Unfair, And It’s Kind Of Cool
1:06 PM EDT on July 22, 2021
The last two games between the Giants and the Dodgers in L.A. have been nothing short of fantastic, with each team delivering dueling heroics in an attempt to improve their position in baseball's best divisional battle. On both Tuesday and Wednesday, a trailing team put together a three-run ninth inning to steal a victory. Two days ago, Will Smith's pinch-hit dinger with guys on first and second capped off a comeback that began with the team down 6-1, sending the Dodger Stadium crowd into hysterics and the home team home with a 8-6 win. Last night, Wilmer Flores and the Giants returned the favor, as the infielder who led the team in dingers last year sent a deep shot into the left-field bleachers off Kenley Jansen to turn a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 lead. The Giants wound up winning, 4-2.
That San Francisco success, coupled with their series-opening 7-2 victory on Monday where Buster Posey returned from injury and immediately smashed a home run of his own, guaranteed that they would leave Los Angeles with their NL West lead intact even if the Dodgers take the final game on Thursday. They're up two games in baseball's most cutthroat division right now, with a 5.5-game lead on the third-place Padres. But despite having the best record in MLB, nothing about the Giants' current status feels secure in the slightest. Depending on where and how you cheer for baseball, that's either awesome news for the second half of the season or an extremely raw deal for baseball's best teams. Maybe you can find it in your heart to see it as both.
San Francisco has so far been the biggest shock of the season, with their success powered by the emergence of Kevin Gausman as a mega-ace and veteran mainstays like Posey and Brandon Crawford producing implausible career-best numbers in their mid-30s. But the fact that the reigning champs are right behind them with the sport's second-best record means that this story could still crash into a far-too-abrupt ending with just one or two bad breaks. And that's without even factoring in San Diego, which has the third-best run differential in the National League (behind SF and LA, naturally) and an extraordinarily fun-to-watch leading MVP candidate in Fernando Tatis Jr.
Long before the Giants showed themselves to be the bizarre monster that they are, this was still set to be the division to watch in all of baseball. Though the Dodgers managed to sweep the Padres in the NLDS last year, San Diego asserted themselves as a worthy challenger simply by making the postseason for the first time since 2006 and spent the offseason getting better—acquiring Yu Darvish from the Cubs was only part of it—in ways that suggested they wouldn't be satisfied until they achieved much more. Though the Dodgers finally got their championship last fall, they all knew that they had a rival they could no longer take lightly.
“We’re going to get 19 World Series games this year,” Justin Turner said of his team's dates with San Diego back during spring training.
What neither Turner nor anyone else could have foreseen was that the Giants would be good enough to double that number and turn divisional play into a stretch of near must-win games. The extent to which these three teams have beat up on the rest of the league can't be overstated. The NL East-leading Mets hold a 3.5-game lead on the Phillies, but would be in fourth place if they moved to the other coast.
I go back and forth on this hilarious balance of power issue depending upon whether I'm watching a game live or simply thinking about October. On the one hand, it's patently obvious how the west's top-heaviness could deprive baseball fans of the best possible postseason. If the season ended today, either the Dodgers or the Padres would only be guaranteed one game in the Wild Card. Whichever team advances from the winner-take-all game would only get five games in a Division Series against the Giants. Even without getting into all the hypotheticals, it's hard to say a playoff format is working as it should when a team with the second-best record in all of baseball might play just nine postseason innings.
On the other hand, the guarantee that only two of these three great teams will make it as far as a proper playoff series makes every remaining game between them that much more intense, in a way that the NBA or the NHL could not dream of. Wilmer Flores's home run meant something, even in July, because it represented a legitimate blow to the Dodgers' hopes of winning back-to-back World Series. If they can't pass the Giants in the standings, the Dodgers' chance of making that run again depends upon what's basically a coin flip. There are 26 games left in the season between two of these three teams, with a lot of them backloaded at the very end. If all three can keep up their current pace, every series is going to matter. Whether it will be fun in a cruel way or cruel in a fun way will depend upon your perspective.