6 Key Players Who Will Determine the Champion of Giants-Dodgers NL West Race

Ian CasselberryMLB Lead WriterAugust 14, 2012

6 Key Players Who Will Determine the Champion of Giants-Dodgers NL West Race

0 of 6

    The NL West race is the tightest in baseball with the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers tied for first place as of Aug. 14. One of baseball's best rivalries just keeps getting better. 

    The Giants and Dodgers were also the most competitive with each other before the July 31 trade deadline, as both teams made flashy, headline-grabbing deals. The Dodgers may have acquired more players, but they arguably had more holes to fill in order to keep pace with the Giants. 

    Neither team seems likely to pull away during the final months of the regular season. Adding more drama to the race is the possibility that the Dodgers or Giants will have to win the NL West to make it to the postseason. The wild card may not provide a safety net, as the Atlanta Braves and Pittsburgh Pirates currently hold those two coveted extra playoff spots (albeit by a 1.5 game lead).

    With such a close race, one or two players could end up being the key difference for their respective teams during this dogfight for a playoff spot. Who will give their clubs the edge during August and September? Here are six names whose success or failure will determine who wins the NL West. 

Matt Kemp, Dodgers

1 of 6

    The NL West might not even be a race between the Dodgers and Giants if Matt Kemp hadn't missed 51 games with a hamstring injury. 

    When Kemp first strained his hamstring and went on the disabled list on May 13, the Dodgers had a six-game lead over the Giants, the biggest first-place lead among baseball's six divisions. Los Angeles managed to maintain that lead in his absence.

    Kemp returned on May 29 and only played in two games before re-injuring the hamstring and going back on the DL May 31. By then, San Francisco had cut that lead to four games.

    The Dodgers went 11-17 in June without their MVP. When Kemp finally returned after the All-Star break on July 13, his team's first-place lead was basically gone. By July 14, San Francisco had taken over the top spot in the NL West. Though they haven't been able to pull away, never building a lead larger than three games, the Giants haven't given up first place since then. 

    Kemp has a stronger team around him now, thanks to the trade deadline additions of Hanley Ramirez, Brandon League and Shane Victorino. But the Dodgers can't win the NL West without their best player in the lineup. 

    Since returning, Kemp has a slash average of .361/.406/.571 with five home runs and 19 RBI (as of Aug. 14). That's not as explosive as his April, when he compiled a 1.383 OPS with 12 homers and 25 RBI. But he's regained his place as one of the best players in baseball. 

Buster Posey, Giants

2 of 6

    As great as Matt Kemp was early in the season, Buster Posey has been just as good—if not better—in July and August.

    Since the All-Star break, the Giants catcher has hit .450/.521/.790 with nine home runs and 33 RBI (as of Aug. 14). He's been the best hitter in baseball. 

    Posey has been so good that Carl Steward of the San Jose Mercury News has compared him to 49ers legendary quarterback Joe Montana.

    "Joe had an aura, a special grace, an uncanny calm and a self-effacing but nonetheless regal quality that separated him from all the athletes around him," Steward wrote, "many of them exceptional in their own right. Posey has all of these qualities as well, and they’re still evolving."

    The Giants need Posey to keep up his MVP-caliber performance as they're locked in a duel with the Dodgers for the NL West title. As of Aug. 14, the two teams are tied for first place. The first club to trip and lose pace might end up losing the division and a playoff spot.

    Posey might have more help surrounding him than Kemp, with Melky Cabrera, Pablo Sandoval and Hunter Pence in the Giants' lineup. Marco Scutaro has also been an excellent pick-up, batting .313 with 15 RBI in 16 games. But he's the pivotal player for San Francisco's offense.

    It's too much to expect Posey to keep hitting .450, but he needs to continue being their best hitter—and maybe the best in baseball—for the Giants to win this race. 

Hanley Ramirez, Dodgers

3 of 6

    By the end of the season, we'll know whether Hanley Ramirez or Hunter Pence turned out to be the more pivotal trade deadline acquisition in the NL West. But the Dodgers arguably needed Ramirez more, as another strong hitter to go with Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier in their lineup. 

    The left side of the infield had been a major weakness for the Dodgers. They needed production from third base or shortstop. Ramirez has provided a boost at both positions, toggling between them since coming over from the Miami Marlins. 

    In 75 plate appearances for the Dodgers, Ramirez has batted .288/.360/.409 with 18 RBI. A change of scenery and competing in a playoff race has rejuvenated a player who looked lethargic with the Marlins, worn down by their losing. Of course, he had much to do with that.

    But in Los Angeles, Ramirez doesn't have the pressure of being the best player. He can play sidekick to Kemp, and even Ethier. Yet he provides another strong middle-of-the-order bat, hitting fifth behind the Dodgers' incumbent stars. 

    Ramirez didn't have the opportunity to participate in a playoff race with the Marlins. But he'll be a key for the Dodgers down the stretch. Even better, he has others to help show him the way. Kemp and Either have been through this before. They can take the leadership role that never seemed to suit Ramirez very well. 

Sergio Romo, Giants

4 of 6

    Though Giants general manager Brian Sabean made a nice deal for Hunter Pence before the July 31 trade deadline, he arguably also needed to get a closer to tie together his bullpen.

    Since Brian Wilson was injured at the beginning of the season, Santiago Casilla had filled in nicely in the ninth inning. That is, until July. Casilla was apparently worn down by a closer's workload. This especially manifested itself, as the Mercury News' Alex Pavlovic reported, in a blister problem. 

    With Casilla faltering, Giants manager Bruce Bochy has rotated ninth inning responsibilities among Sergio Romo, Javier Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt. Affeldt has converted the Giants' last two save opportunities, so maybe he's essentially become the Giants' closer, whether Bochy wants to give him that title or not. (More likely, however, matchups dictated how the left-handed Affeldt was used.)

    But Romo has been the Giants' best reliever all year and is thus most important to the team's late-inning success through the final two months of the regular season. He leads Giants relievers with a 2.00 ERA, 0.92 WHIP and a strikeout rate of 10.8 per nine innings. 

    Even if Romo doesn't end up with the save in the final box score, he will likely have pitched in the most important, high-leverage situation for the Giants in later innings. Ideally, that's how a manager uses his best reliever, rather than saving him for the ninth inning because that's when a closer is supposed to get a save. 

Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers

5 of 6

    For all the deals Dodgers GM Ned Colletti made before the trade deadline, he wasn't able to get a top starting pitcher for his rotation. (No offense to Joe Blanton, but he's the quintessential innings-eating fifth starter.) 

    Though Clayton Kershaw is the unquestioned ace of the Dodgers staff, not getting some help for him at the top of the rotation increased his burden to be the No. 1 guy. He has to lead the way for the Dodgers down the stretch and has to provide a stellar effort almost every time he takes the mound from here on out.

    Fortunately for the Dodgers, Kershaw has shown he's up for the responsibility. In his past three starts, he's allowed a total of three earned runs over 22 innings. During that span, he's also struck out 21 batters and walked four. 

    Nothing less should have been expected from the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner. But Kershaw has been inconsistent this season, not stringing a dominant set of starts together. He may be doing so now, however.

    Kershaw may not win a second straight Cy Young Award. But as this season progresses, he's put himself back in the conversation. That could end up being the difference in the NL West race. 

Brandon Belt, Giants

6 of 6

    Buster Posey, Melky Cabrera, Pablo Sandoval and Hunter Pence may be the Giants' most important offensive players. But some of the complementary pieces in San Francisco's lineup could end up being the tipping point in a close NL West race.

    For the Giants, Brandon Belt could be the X-factor that gives the Giants an edge. 

    Belt looked to be playing his way out of a job in July, batting .186/.266/.214 with no home runs and four RBI. Giants manager Bruce Bochy probably did him no favors by yanking him in and out of the lineup, yet Belt didn't do much to change Bochy's mind.

    In August, however, Belt has been a strong presence at first base and may have settled Bochy's itchy trigger finger. As of Aug. 14, Belt is batting .438/.500/.625 in 36 plate appearances. He only has one RBI and the Giants would surely prefer more power and run production.

    The Giants already have a strong middle of the lineup, so Belt doesn't need to be a huge threat. But he needs to be a presence. If Belt continues to hit and get on base, that will extend many innings and make the Giants' batting order that much deeper against opposing pitching staffs.

    It's certainly more than the Dodgers are getting from their first basemen.

     

    Follow @iancass on Twitter