When you think of some of the historic baseball rivalries, it's the ones on the coasts that stand out: the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, and the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants.
On the East Coast, it's the loud, intense fans with their wicked accents and their storied franchises. Out west, it's a laid-back crowd until the "Beat L.A." chant breaks out. It's Northern California vs. Southern California, Boston vs. New York and bragging rights for all of the transplants that reside in enemy territory.
This is why this year's American League Wild Card and National League West races have been so exciting. And no disrespect to the AL, the Yankees or the Sox, but this bout between the Dodgers and the Giants might be one of the best finishes ever for a divisional crown.
The Dodgers have been one of the most elite teams baseball has ever seen for the last decade. They have won eight consecutive NL West titles, three pennants and one World Series title. However, those division titles are relatively meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Division leaders make the playoffs and sometimes secure home-field advantage, but it means nothing if it doesn't end with the Commissioner's Trophy.
Yet it's the Giants who have won three World Series titles since 2010. It was maddening for the residents of the Southland to watch their beloved Dodgers dominate during the regular season only to see their neighbors to the north celebrate titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014. Los Angeles fans were forced to watch the Giants snap their 56-year title drought while the Dodgers' own swelled to 26 years by the time San Francisco won its third World Series.
Ultimately, the Giants' success was unsustainable. The core aged, their manager retired and they bottomed out in 2017 with 98 losses. All the while, the Dodgers remained successful and finally won that long-coveted World Series.
But now the Giants and the Dodgers are battling it out once again. They are the best teams in baseball by a pretty good margin, as both have surpassed the 100-win threshold, marking only the fifth time in divisional history (1969) one division has boasted two 100-win teams. However, one will have to play in a single-elimination playoff game against the St. Louis Cardinals, a surprise contender that just reeled off 17 wins in a row before losing to the Milwaukee Brewers on Wednesday.
Nonetheless, we're in that fun, frenetic part of the season where there are multiple scenarios in play. This race might not be decided in 162 games. If the two end up tied on Sunday night, the Giants would host a play-in game. San Francisco earned the right to play at home by winning the head-to-head series by the slimmest of margins: 10-9. The winner would advance to the NLDS, and the loser would host the NL Wild Card game.
The Giants are 2.0 games ahead in the standings, but they have to play five games (two against the Arizona Diamondbacks, three against the San Diego Padres) without Brandon Belt, who is on the injured list with a fractured thumb. The Dodgers have five games left at home—two against the Padres and three against another NL contender in the Brewers.
How each of them got to this position makes this race all the more interesting. The Dodgers were supposed to be a historic juggernaut. They had assembled one of the most frightening pitching staffs in history, adding 2020 NL Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer for good measure in the offseason. They had potential All-Stars at nearly every position and several MVP candidates to start the season.
But then one of those star arms—starting pitching Dustin May—needed Tommy John surgery. Cody Bellinger, Corey Seager and Mookie Betts all got hurt, and even when they returned, they didn't play like All-Stars. Bauer is on administrative leave and under investigation by the league and the Pasadena Police Department after a woman accused him of sexually assaulting her twice, which Bauer has denied. Despite all that, though, they have managed to secure their third 100-win season in the last five years.
For the Giants, it looked like it would be an unremarkable end for the few players left from the 2014 team. But shortstop Brandon Crawford has looked like an MVP. The same could be said for Buster Posey, who returned after taking 2020 off to help his wife, Kristen, with their adopted, premature twin daughters. Even with his injury, Belt still set a new career-best with 29 home runs.
The Giants lead the National League in home runs despite the fact that only three players on the roster have reached the 20-homer mark (Belt, Crawford and Mike Yastrzemski).
Kevin Gausman has reinvented himself at age 30, while 35-year-old Jake McGee is showing that you only need one pitch to be successful.
General manager Scott Harris and president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi did a remarkable job to expedite the rebuild. The Giants were so good midway through the year they became buyers instead of sellers, trading for third baseman Kris Bryant. They made this splash without completely decimating their farm system because it had been restocked over the past five years.
So here's where the urgency comes in for both teams. The Giants are a team on the rise, but the veterans will have to make way for the prospects sooner or later. This could be the last dance for some players who brought titles to the city. Belt will be a free agent this winter. Pitcher Johnny Cueto has a club option for next season, and so does Posey. The Giants have Posey's heir apparent in top prospect Joey Bart too.
Crawford was extended through 2023 with a club option through 2024, but he was once viewed as an early-season trade candidate before forcing the club's hand.
A ton of key Los Angeles players are in the final year of their contracts. The heartbeat of the club, ace Clayton Kershaw, will be a free agent following this season, as will Seager, closer Kenley Jansen, outfielder AJ Pollock, reliever Joe Kelly, utility man Chris Taylor and starting pitcher Max Scherzer, their prized trade deadline acquisition. Some might return, but it's unlikely all of them will still be playing in Dodger blue next season.
All of this has culminated in what is perhaps the best divisional race in baseball history. It's right up there with the 1978 tiebreaker between the Yankees and Red Sox, the one where Bucky Dent, a light-hitting shortstop, hit a three-run home run over the Green Monster to give the Yankees a 3-2 lead and help them eventually win the game 5-4. It might be better than the 1995 AL West competition between the California Angels and the Seattle Mariners when the Mariners, led by Ken Griffey Jr. and Edgar Martinez, secured their first-ever postseason berth and saved the team from relocation.
But divisional races aren't remembered the way playoff runs are. Few remember that the Dodgers clinched the 2014 NL West title by routing the Giants 9-1 at Dodger Stadium—what we remember from 2014 is Madison Bumgarner coming into Game 7 against the upstart Kansas City Royals on short rest to close out the game and clinch the series.
So, while this race has certainly been entertaining, history is made in October, not September. At the end of the day, this race is still about playoff positioning. The Giants hold the edge and the Dodgers might be the favorites, so this race still has significant ramifications for each team as we head into the postseason and start playing the games everyone will remember.
One of the best rivalries in baseball is only about to get better this weekend.