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FRANCISCO -- Giants, Dodgers, September ... fill in what comes next.
Drama. Urgency. Excitement. And, of course, significance.
The longtime adversaries begin a three-game series Friday at AT&T Park that could define the remainder of the National League West race. San Francisco leads second-place Los Angeles by 4 1/2 games in the division standings. If the Giants take the series, observers might start counting down San Francisco's magic number for clinching the West. For the Dodgers, winning twice would help their chances of staying in contention until the teams engage in a season-ending, three-game rematch Oct. 1-3 at Los Angeles. A sweep would further revive the Dodgers' hopes, which stagnated during a 3-4 homestand.
And don't scoff the possibility of a sweep. That was the result of the last three Giants-Dodgers series. San Francisco dominated the June 25-27 and Aug. 20-22 sets, bracketing a Los Angeles sweep July 27-29.
"I like the trend if we win the first game," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said.
The renewal of one of baseball's greatest rivalries will unfold before sellout crowds and national television audiences (MLB Network on Friday, Fox on Saturday and ESPN on Sunday). The setting promises to enhance the competition.
"I enjoy the atmosphere up there. There's a buzz, an energy," Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis said. "I feel, in that situation, it makes us closer as a team. We pull for each other, because we know it's us against not only a great team, but 40,000 fans screaming their heads off for us to fail. I think we play well when our backs are against the wall."
Said Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval, "It's fun for everybody on the team when we have series like that, especially [against] the rivals. We're fighting for first place. ... Every series is important, but this one is more important for everybody."
Neither team has thrived recently. Following a 5-1 trip, the Giants lost two of three to Arizona at home, where they own a barely adequate 38-30 record. San Francisco's formidable starting rotation has struggled, posting a 2-4 record with a 6.47 ERA in the team's last 11 games.
"The starters will bounce back," Giants manager Bruce Bochy insisted. "We're here because of how our starters have been throwing all year. I feel good about where we are."
Thursday's scheduled off-day could benefit San Francisco's starters, particularly those who will face the Dodgers. Tim Lincecum, who'll pitch Friday's opener, is 3-11 with a 5.91 ERA this year on a normal four days' rest. Yet he's 4-2, 4.34 with an extra day off. The contrast isn't as sharp for Matt Cain, Saturday's starter (8-3, 3.28 with four days' rest, 4-1, 2.45 on five), but a difference exists. Same with Barry Zito, who drew Sunday's assignment (4-6, 5.34/4-2, 4.69).
Lincecum downplayed the effect of five days' rest. "If it does [help], great," he said. "But I'm not going to give credence to the fact that if I get an extra day -- you know what I mean?"
Nor did Lincecum, who went 4-1 with a 2.43 ERA in the 2010 postseason, express the need to whip himself into a frenzy just because he's appearing in a Giants-Dodgers game.
"I'm not going to go out there and try to make myself get that extra adrenaline. It comes when it needs to," said Lincecum, who's 2-1 with a 2.55 ERA in three starts against Los Angeles. "All I can do is prepare and know that, in big games, I can trust the fact that I can rise to the occasion, which is the biggest thing."
Despite adding slugging first baseman Adrian Gonzalez to their lineup, the Dodgers haven't jelled offensively. They scored 20 runs in their seven-game homestand. Center fielder Matt Kemp, who denied injuring his shoulder while colliding with the Coors Field wall on Aug. 28, went 3-for-25 during the homestand. Gonzalez has one home run in 56 plate appearances since the Dodgers acquired him from Boston in a nine-player trade Aug. 25. He might welcome returning to AT&T Park, where he hit .297 with six home runs and 21 RBIs in 45 games with San Diego from 2006-2010.
The standings, the schedule and the calendar are all the Dodgers need to remind themselves of this series' importance.
"Every series is must-win in September," Kemp said. "There are no excuses. We've got to play every game like it's our last game. You never know what can happen."
"It's no secret it's a big series," Ellis said. "But at the end of the day, it's just about us winning games no matter who we're playing. That's what Donnie told us in the team meeting [last week]. We've just got to win as many games as we can, a game at a time, and at the end of the month check the standings."
With the Giants and Dodgers jostling each other for a toehold to climb up Mt. September, a few things are certain.
"It's going to be intense out there," Bochy said. "That's why you play the game. That's why we're here. This is what you should look forward to. It should be a good series. There's going to be a lot of tension here."