This is the series we've been waiting for

September 14th, 2020

SAN DIEGO -- The best team in baseball meets the hottest team in baseball this week.

It should make for a thrilling three-game set between the Dodgers and Padres at Petco Park, starting on Monday at 6:10 p.m. PT on MLB.TV.

The Dodgers, of course, are the league’s longstanding powerhouse, winners of seven consecutive National League West division titles. The Padres, meanwhile, spent most of those years rebuilding. But they’ve overhauled their roster and view themselves as contenders for “the big cake.” They have the NL's second-best record, only 2 1/2 games behind L.A.

With no shortage of superstars and storylines, this Dodgers-Padres series is must-see TV, and here are five reasons why:

1. Streak in jeopardy?

The Padres are surging, but the Dodgers are still favorites to win an eighth straight division title. Nothing short of a San Diego sweep would change that.

But would you put it past the Padres right now? They're riding a seven-game winning streak, having swept consecutive NL West rivals already this homestand.

Yes, the Dodgers are a different beast, and they're in first place for a reason. But even if San Diego were to win two of three, things could get interesting down the stretch. The Padres' final eight games are against teams below .500. (The Dodgers, meanwhile, host the first-place A's next week.)

"We'd better embrace it as a pennant race," said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. "The goal is to win the division every year, and right now those guys are playing as good a baseball as anybody in the big leagues, playing with a lot of confidence. They're going to be ready for us. ... I expect us to have the same intensity."

2. A playoff preview?

No matter who wins the division, the Dodgers and Padres are postseason-bound. They own the NL's two best records, but because they hail from the same division, they’d slot into the first and fourth seeds.

Both teams would host a first-round NL Wild Card Series, and if they win, they'd advance to face each other in a five-game NL Division Series. The two NL West foes have never faced each other in the postseason.

"A potential playoff opponent, so yeah, I would say it's probably the biggest series of the year," Roberts said. "But regardless -- win this series, lose this series -- there's still more games to be played."

It’s perhaps notable that the Padres moved newly acquired ace ahead in the rotation, saying their goal was to keep him on his usual rest after a pair of postponements. As a side effect, Clevinger won't face the Dodgers.

In fact, he's never faced the Dodgers. , , , , Chris Taylor and have combined for one career at-bat against him. If the two sides meet in October, that lack of familiarity could favor the Padres.

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3. An MVP showdown

Last week's MLB.com poll quantified what's already pretty obvious: and are the two NL MVP Award front-runners. What better way to decide the race than a head-to-head showdown in one of the season’s most high-profile series?

Tatis and Betts are tied for the NL home run lead with 15 apiece. Tatis leads the Majors in fWAR, while Betts leads in bWAR.

In the poll, Tatis took home 28 of 30 first-place votes, but that gap might be shrinking. Betts homered off Zack Greinke on Sunday night, while Tatis has slumped to just one hit in his past five games. Not to worry, Padres manager Jayce Tingler said.

"If anything it just means A) Everybody goes through these, and B) It probably means he's getting ready to get hot really soon," Tingler said.

4. Ace-off

What better way to start things off?

Kershaw looks like a three-time NL Cy Young Award winner again, as he's posted a 1.98 ERA across seven starts. His fastball velocity has ticked up, and no one is squaring up his breaking pitches. Opponents are hitting just .150 against his slider and curveball this season.

Speaking of breaking pitches, Lamet has been one of the Padres' breakout stars, and he's done so by relying heavily on his slider. No pitcher in baseball has thrown the pitch more, and in his most recent outing, Lamet threw a preposterous 66 sliders. That's 15 more than anyone else has thrown in a single game this season.

For good reason. Opponents are hitting .099 against Lamet's slider this year.

“He’s pretty special,” said veteran catcher Jason Castro, one of the Padres’ nine Trade Deadline acquisitions. “The fastball, obviously the velocity is there, and his slider is one of the best sliders I think I’ve ever caught.”

5. These games were already good

In the seven games they've played this season, the Padres and Dodgers have already authored their share of memorable moments:

Betts' three-homer game to announce his arrival in L.A. Tatis' moonshot, capped by an emphatic bat flip. Lamet's near-no-hitter, spoiled by a late Dodgers rally. Taylor's perfect throw to nail Trent Grisham in a game-ending play at the plate.

"We've had a couple really good series with them, high intensity," Taylor said. "We know they picked up a couple guys at the Deadline, and they've been playing really good baseball. We've just got to keep doing what we've been doing and match their intensity."

The Dodgers lead the season series, 4-3. But this series should reach a different level, considering the NL West and playoff implications.

Get used to it. The Dodgers and Padres might be playing high-stakes baseball for a long time.