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Giants jump back in NL West race after 'big' sweep of Dodgers

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SAN FRANCISCO -- As raucous Giants fans poured into the streets outside Oracle Park and smoke and music filled the home clubhouse, Gabe Kapler stood in a quiet manager's office and stuck to a common theme from the last two seasons. 

"We're gonna not get too high or too low," he said. 

That attitude is there in good times and bad, with Kapler never showing a hint of panic, and rarely celebrating too much, even when it feels warranted. He keeps it even, but that was hard for the fan base and some of the players to do over the last month.

The Giants played truly awful baseball at times in May, and Thursday's loss to the Colorado Rockies was one of the uglier ones of the year. They have at multiple times been 7 1/2 games out in the race for an NL West title they won last year, and they took the field Friday with a 6 1/2 game deficit. 

It's early, but it's not that early, and a really bad weekend could have all but sunk the Giants in the division. Sure, they'll get healthier at some point, but the Los Angeles Dodgers do not have the type of roster you chase down from 10 games back, and the San Diego Padres have hung right behind them despite spending the whole first half without Fernando Tatis Jr. 

There was no guarantee that the Giants could climb out of a big hole even if they did play a style more closely resembling their 2021 season, which makes this weekend's result notable, even if it is still the middle of June. 

 

With a 2-0 win on Sunday, the Giants clinched their first three-game sweep over the Dodgers since the final weekend of the 2016 season. They are back within 3 1/2 games in the NL West, which again is truly a three-team race. 

Kapler might have played it cool Sunday, but the emotions that were on display from his players throughout another nail-biting win showed how important this win was. 

"Yeah, it's big," said lefty Carlos Rodón, who allowed just two hits in six innings. "That turns it around for us a little bit. We'll try to build off today and this whole weekend and carry it through."

The result was important, but so too was the way the Giants achieved it. They allowed four runs in three games to the best lineup in the National League, and their bullpen did most of the heavy lifting. The group had a nightmare stretch in May and still seemed unsettled at times earlier this month, but the Dodgers managed just two runs in 16 innings against Giants relievers. 

"I'm not surprised. We did it last year and we have the same group back," right-hander Dominic Leone said. "Every year is different but I think we have confidence in everybody that's out there and not much has changed from last year. We've just got to get the ball rolling and get guys in good spots to pitch."

Leone handled the eighth on Sunday and got through the heart of the lineup, starting with Freddie Freeman. He ran into some trouble, but he was perhaps the biggest beneficiary of what might have been Austin Slater's best defensive game in the big leagues. 

That was ironic, since Slater fouled the first pitch he saw Saturday off his left knee, leading to so much soreness that he wondered how he would be able to maneuver in the outfield on Sunday. He ended up catching two sinking liners in the first two innings to help Rodón, and with one out and speedy Trea Turner on first in the eighth, Slater went 103 feet into the right-center gap to rob Will Smith of extra bases. 

"Huge. Huge. He got a great jump on the fly ball by Smith," Leone said. "I mean, that ball, I watched it -- it just kept tailing away and I didn't think he was going to get there, and next thing you know he made an unbelievable play."

The next one was just as important. The Giants have pushed their outfielders to be aggressive on sinking line drives, even if it costs them extra-base hits at times. The calculus is that the diving catches will lead to outs that outweigh any damage. Justin Turner followed Smith with a liner to right and Mike Yastrzemski couldn't glove it, but Slater was backing him up perfectly, and he shockingly kept Trea Turner from scoring on the play. 

 

When Leone struck out Chris Taylor, the threat was over. The veteran screamed as he came off the mound, shimmying his shoulders as part of the celebration. 

"It's always fun to pitch in these rivalry games," Leone said. "It meant a lot to us last year, especially having to fight them tooth and nail to the end. That's our goal this year. They're not going to go away and I think, for us, we want to show everybody that we're still here, we're still a competitive team, and that we can play our best baseball with anybody."

The Giants won the West by just one game last year, and it doesn't look like anybody is going to run away from the rest of the division this season. As good as the Dodgers are, they left Oracle Park reeling, and with ace Walker Buehler on the Injured List for at least a couple of months. 

It's setting up for another intense summer in the West, and the Giants, with their best weekend of the year, made sure they're right back in the thick of it. That's a place their manager always expected them to be, no matter how bad things might have looked in recent weeks. 

"I think it's a solid position to be in, but everybody in this room has been around the game long enough to know that divisions aren't won in June and they're probably not lost very often in June, although it happens," Kapler said. "I didn't think we were in that danger zone. Look, I understand why it feels that way sometimes and why it feels very easy to be like, 'Oh man, the division is getting away from us.' 

"I just don't think it happens very often with good baseball teams, and I think we're a good baseball team."