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N FRANCISCO -- The San Francisco Giants have played well enough, played consistently enough and weathered enough adversity to deserve an occasional break. Sunday night, they got one.
The Giants aren't leading the National League West by 5 1/2 games because of anything resembling luck. But for the final game of a crucial series against their biggest rivals and closest pursuers, the Giants did catch a full-sized break.
The scheduled Los Angeles pitcher was Clayton Kershaw, ace of the Dodgers rotation and 2011 NL Cy Young Award winner. But Kershaw was scratched with inflammation in his right hip. The Giants learned that Kershaw would be out, and that Joe Blanton would be his replacement, shortly after they took the field at AT&T Park for batting practice.
Kershaw wasn't a happy non-starter, but this wasn't his call. "I felt good enough to pitch," he told reporters. "It wasn't my decision."
But after Kershaw underwent an MRI on Saturday, the Dodgers thought it would be prudent to push his start back to Tuesday in Arizona. "We're really trying to put him in a position to be able to pitch the rest of the year," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "We want him to be healthy the rest of the way, and this gives us the best chance."
That point was easily understood. But as far as winning the game Sunday night, the Giants had a better chance against Blanton. This is not said to demean him. He has made 225 Major League starts and has a winning record for his career. But Kershaw is a truly rare talent.
Giants manager Bruce Bochy was careful to put this discussion into the context of his team still having to beat a good, veteran Major League pitcher. But when he came to the Kershaw portion of these remarks, Bochy said:
"He's one of the best pitchers in the game. ... Sure, if you don't have to face a Kershaw, you don't mind that."
Lifetime against the Giants, Kershaw is 7-4, with a 1.39 earned run average. Blanton, meanwhile, against the Giants had a career 4.91 ERA and a 2-5 record. On Sunday night, that became a 2-6 record with a 5.06 ERA.
The Giants defeated the Dodgers, 4-0. They chased Blanton in the sixth, although anything that is said on behalf of their offense should not diminish the strong performance produced by the San Francisco starter, Barry Zito. He gave the Giants 6 1/3 shutout innings and the Giants bullpen, with roster expansion now numbering 13 relievers, took it the rest of the way. Zito's work is a triumph of craft at this point. Working with an 84-mph fastball, he finds a way; the Giants have won his last seven starts.
"I thought it was important that we take the series, I did," Bochy said. "I thought this was a critical game for us to win."
Absolutely, which is why, on the other side, Clayton Kershaw really wanted to pitch this game, hip inflammation or not. Instead of leaving this series with a 3 1/2-game divisional lead, the Giants have a 5 1/2-game lead. Their outlook is upbeat and positive without being smug. The strength of their rotation gives them an edge over the Dodgers. Their offense, while still some distance from scary, has picked up notably in the second half, even in the post-Melky Cabrera era.
And the remaining schedules for these two teams give the Giants an even larger edge. The Giants have three games left against a team that currently has a winning record -- that team, conveniently enough, being the Dodgers. The Dodgers, meanwhile, have four games at home against the Cardinals, who are ahead of the Dodgers in the race for the second NL Wild Card spot. And the Dodgers have three games on the road against Cincinnati and Washington, two likely division winners.
Throughout the evening, rhythmic chants of "Beat L.A.! Beat L.A.!" reverberated through the AT&T Park capacity crowd of 41,517. The Giants did as the crowd demanded. They won this series and are now 9-6 against the Dodgers in 2012.
The Giants have plenty of tangible merit in several directions. They have risen above injuries and the Cabrera suspension. With their pitching, they can once again be an extremely difficult postseason opponent.
And on the issue of fortune turning in their direction with a smile, well, if you're playing the biggest game of the season and the other guys' best pitcher is a late scratch, this could be one more sign that this might be your year.