The four-game series between the top two teams in the division will simply set the tone for the final 18 games of the season.
It’s an important series. It figures to be an exciting series between two teams that have, in many ways, created a rivalry that equals the increasingly tepid Giants-Dodgers rivalry (it takes more to keep a rivalry simmering than fans who chant, “Giants suck! Giants suck,” in response to the chant, “Beat L.A.! Beat L.A.!”).
Barring one team losing a game in the standings before the series begins and then being swept in San Diego, both teams will emerge on Sunday evening in the thick of the division and the wild card race.
Lots of things can happen in 18 games, especially when the Padres close the regular season with three games in San Francisco. So, imagine that the Padres win three of four in San Diego and the Giants leave town three games (maybe four) behind.
The Giants would be reeling, sure, but they’d have 18 games (and those three at the end against San Diego) to make up the ground. The same would true for the Padres should they find themselves a couple of games behind the first-place Giants on Sunday.
That’s the practical look at the potential impact of the series. It’s the series that sets the tone for the games that lead up to the The Series at the end of the season.
There is a psychological factor at play this weekend in San Diego, though, for folks who believe that there’s more to momentum than the next day’s starting pitcher.
The Padres didn’t just stumble along while the Giants roared to within one game of the lead. The Padres imploded during a 10-game losing streak—the longest such streak by a first-place team since 1932.
A 10-game losing streak, even if followed by wins against a Dodgers team that went in the tank over the weekend against the Giants, has the potential to stay with the Padres. They know they righted themselves against a team in the process of giving up on their season. So, they well might be wondering if the Dodgers series wasn’t just a brief timeout from the horrendous slump.
The Giants, meanwhile, are happy to play on the possibility that the Padres believe they are still in free fall. San Francisco enters the series not thinking about their 2-9 mark against San Diego in 2010, but about how quickly a season that seemed lost when the Padres led by six games two weeks ago is suddenly starting to look like one for the history books.
The Giants are winning in a variety of ways, with a different heroes. All of a sudden, the starting rotation is spinning gold again. And, the San Diego series begins with the Giants sending the the three starters who avoided a prolonged slump in Matt Cain, suddenly consistent Jonathan Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner. On Sunday comes Tim Lincecum, fresh off two victories where he flashed his Cy Young form.
Padres ace Matt Latos has his spot in the rotation coming up Sunday, versus Lincecum, but isn't listed as the probable starter yet. The matchups that are set have Cain versus John Garland, Sanchez facing Clayton Richard, and Bumgarner meeting Tim Stauffer. There's no reason to assume that Lincecum-Latos won't cap things on Sunday.
The Giants are aware that if they can catch, then pass, the Padres this week, they might be in position to use the ensuing six to eight games to put San Diego into a hole that would require an extended winning streak over the final 18 games.
It’s not the series that will determine the winner of the NL West, but it could be a series that determines whether one team has to dig out of a hole over the final 18 games—or whether the final 18 games become the most exciting of what has been an intriguing roller-coaster ride for both clubs.
Ted Sillanpaa is a Northern California sports writer and columnist. Reach Ted at: firstname.lastname@example.org