When the Giants failed to clinch an NL playoff spot on the final day of the regular season last September, the disappointment wasn't just because their season was over. Team officials and players really, really wanted a shot at the Dodgers, in part because they felt strongly that the eventual World Series champions wanted no part of them in the first round.
The Giants will get their shot this weekend, but there's a twist. It's the Dodgers who are the ones doing the chasing right now.
Gabe Kapler's team has been in first place for 25 consecutive days, but the biggest test of the first two months comes over the next three days at Oracle Park. The Dodgers, heavy preseason favorites to come out of the National League once again, enter two games behind the Giants (28-16), with the Padres (27-17) sitting in between.
Nobody could have seen that order coming at the end of the 2020 season, and nobody could have predicted that the first matchup of 2021 would look quite like this when the lineups came out. After all of the moves over the last two-plus years, the Giants, in their biggest game of the season so far, went with Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford and Brandon Belt in the heart of their order and it made total sense based on their production.
The Dodgers have Trevor Bauer on the mound after adding the NL Cy Young Award winner following their run to a World Series title. That move surprised the industry, but not nearly as much as the one made earlier this month, when the Dodgers added future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols, who will hit cleanup in the first game of the series.
Pujols has been a shell of his old MVP self in recent years, but in four games with the Dodgers he's 3-for-11 with a homer and four RBI. Kapler said he watched video of Pujols on the flight back from Cincinnati and called him "still very dangerous in the batter's box."
"I think if you're a pitcher and you consider him anything but extremely dangerous in all quadrants of the strike zone and a real threat at all times, you're doing yourself a real disservice," Kapler said.
Pujols will face Alex Wood, who has his toughest test of the season, but one that's not quite what it could have been. The Dodgers are without injured stars Cody Bellinger and Corey Seager, but they still brought plenty of talent up the coast, starting with Bauer, who has a 2.20 ERA and 0.75 WHIP in nine starts.
"He is extremely motivated and I think he wants to be the best and he's got the stuff to make that happen," Kapler said. "He's at the top of his game right now and we have to be ready to combat that, and that's no small task."
It really is a new look from the Dodgers -- who won't throw Clayton Kershaw in a series at Oracle Park for the first time in history, it feels like -- and the Giants have plenty of newcomers, too, but as they have done for so long they will line up behind Buster and the Brandons. The three have combined for 27 homers in 44 games. Like with a lot of things that have happened to these two rivals, nobody could have seen that coming in 2021.
"The production of Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford, Evan Longoria, Buster's resurgence, even Johnny Cueto's wins earlier in the season, are a big reason and a big factor in how we're playing right now, what our record looks like and the position we're in," Kapler said. "Those guys are -- in many ways -- contributing to our early season success."