Including the postseason, the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers have won 109 games each. Tonight only the 110th win matters.
The National League Division Series between the NL West champion Giants and the defending World Series champion Dodgers comes down to a deciding Game 5 at Oracle Park in San Francisco.
Ahead of the grand finale, ESPN baseball pundits Alden Gonzalez and Tim Keown tackle some of the most important questions about the series yet — and what it could mean for the clincher.
Has this NLDS lived up to the hype — and will tonight’s final surpass it?
Gonzalez: It’s pretty incredible that we’re four games into this series and haven’t seen a single change of lead yet. But that doesn’t take away from how tense these games have felt. Big, serial-changing moments were sprinkled throughout, but they were subtle. Like Logan Webb who recorded an out on a slow roller on the first baseline in the eighth inning of Game 1, who was penalized for an error he made four innings earlier in almost the exact same game. Or Cody Bellinger raiding Dominic Leone’s fastball in the sixth inning of Game 2 and dramatically breaking out of the puzzling battle. Or Steven Duggar, in the lineup for his defense, who descended a deep drive from Chris Taylor through gale-force winds in the sixth inning of Game 3. Or Walker Buehler, who started his career with short halftime and threw back to-back singles in the second inning of Game 4, setting an important tone for a performance that saved the Dodgers’ season. Expect more from it.
Keown: Game 5 creates its own hype, so what’s happened so far – and it was a good but not great series in my opinion – will be dominated by the energy and anticipation of a decisive game. Given the previous 23 games between these two teams in 2021, there is every reason to believe that the last one will be tight and well played. It’s cool and fitting that they have the whole stage to themselves.
What surprised you the most during the first four games?
Gonzalez: How good has Gavin Lux looked. He nearly tied the game with two outs in the ninth inning of Game 3, sent a deep drive to the middle that was knocked down by the wind, then got the start in Game 4 and reached base four times, four times wide and tie a few singles. Lux, 23, has been one of the Dodgers’ most heralded prospects in recent years, a future cornerstone the team has refused to trade on multiple occasions. But he struggled greatly through rare at bats in 2020 and failed to take advantage of a chance at semi-regular time in 2021. Lux made two trips to the injured list, was demoted to the minors in late August and then learned to play the outfield in a desperate attempt to to contribute. Returning on September 10, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts noticed a calmer, more efficient charge and approach. It started translating into production moving into the postseason, which will see Lux start in the winner-take-all Game 5. “He’ll be out there somewhere,” Roberts said Tuesday night.
Keown: How much the Giants missed the production of Brandon Belt in the middle of the order. When Belt and Max Muncy were eliminated for this round of the playoffs, the depth of the Giants’ roster seemed like a big advantage. That’s not how it turned out. Obviously Bellinger has grown more confident with each at bat and Lux is making himself a problem for San Francisco. The Giants have received production from Tommy La Stella, Kris Bryant and Buster Posey. Evan Longoria only looked good once, but won Game 3. The lack of production from LaMonte Wade Jr., Mike Yastrzemski and Darin Ruf is surprising; Taken individually, it wouldn’t be a big deal, but they’re all having a hard time at the same time. During the regular season of the Giants’ Hero of the Day, that was rare.
The best piece I’ve seen so far in this series is…
Gonzalez: This series is completely different were it not for the jumping catch Brandon Crawford made late in Game 3. The Giants led by a run in the bottom of the seventh, with runners on first and second and two outs. Mookie Betts smoked a 100-mph line drive with an expected batting average of nearly .900. It wasn’t just that Crawford was athletic enough to catch it, but that he was perfectly positioned to do so, a fitting representation of what has made the Giants such an impressive defensive team this season.
Keown: We are going to make a distinction here between aesthetics and importance. La Stella and Crawford’s double play off Justin Turner in the fourth inning of Game 1 was among a handful of the best defensive plays of the entire season. La Stella fielded the ball on the third base side of second base with all his momentum toward left field, did a backhand flip to Crawford, who skated across the bag like a skater and made a crossbody throw to first. Each runner was as long as a shoelace, showing how perfect everything – the twist, the twist, the throw – had to be. The main game, though, was Crawford’s catch of Betts’ liner in the seventh inning of Game 3, but this is where Crawford’s ho-hum brilliance comes into play: If you’ve had a closer look at him this season, you’d have been surprised if he made that one. don’t catch.
The X factor is…
Gonzalez: For the Dodgers, it was undoubtedly Buehler. He took the loss in Game 1, but he gave his team a chance to win despite Webb’s dominance on the other side. More importantly, taking the ball during short halftime in Game 4 assured the Dodgers would navigate this streak with their top three starters (Buehler, Max Scherzer and Julio Urias). The loss of Clayton Kershaw — and Trevor Bauer and Dustin May and Danny Duffy and, remember, Cole Hamels — leaves a big question in the fourth spot of the Dodgers’ rotation. Their key to pushing through into October is that Buehler, Scherzer and Urias will catch as many starts as possible, if not all. Any other circumstance can exhaust the Dodgers’ bullpen.
Keown: Dodger hitters rediscovered their patience after slaving at everything Webb threw at them in Game 1. Webb pounded into the zone early, got the Dodgers into swing mode, then used his off-speed pitches to extend. After the game, he was silenced in the interview room by Posey when he suggested that this was the game plan. The Dodgers, normally a disciplined group that increases the number of pitches in that state-of-the-art manner, seemed more than happy to accommodate. From then on, however, even as they lost 1-0 in Game 3, the Dodgers became more critical. As a result, they were able to perform inexpensive counts and detect errors. It makes an intriguing sidelight for Game 5: Was this a Dodgers thing, or a Webb thing?
What will be the impact of returning to San Francisco?
Gonzalez: The Giants will benefit from a raucous Oracle Park crowd that propelled them to a 54-27 home record during the regular season, but the biggest advantage — aside from batting last, a key part of a series that came so close — is how their pitching is aligned. Webb, who threw 7⅔ scoreless innings in Game 1, will be fully rested. But so is Kevin Gausman, who can supply everything the Giants need from the bullpen. And so is Camilo Doval, who recorded six outs in Game 3 but was not used in Game 4. It’s easy to imagine a scenario where the Giants only use those three pitchers on Thursday night, although unavoidable one would think, will Tyler Rogers play along.
Keown: The scene in Oracle Park before Game 1, the first game after the season between these two rivals, was wild. Fans walked shoulder-to-shoulder through halls and ramps as they chanted “Beat LA,” so vehemently you could feel it in your fillings. That seems tame compared to a Game 5, winner-take-all game between these two teams, but it’s not just the atmosphere that works in San Francisco’s favor. The Game 3 win allowed the Giants to hold Webb on normal rest and place the Northern California native back in front of the home crowd. He hasn’t been around that long, but he’s certainly given all the clues that he’s thriving from the big moment. This one is the biggest.
You both predicted for this series that the winner would advance to the World Series. Do you still believe that? And from what you’ve seen from the rest of the teams in the playoffs this week, will they? to win the?
Gonzalez: On the way in there were two teams that I thought would give the Dodgers or the Giants problems. One was the Milwaukee Brewers, but that was before Devin Williams knocked himself out of the postseason. The other was the Tampa Bay Rays, the only other team that can pitch and run and match either of the two. Both have been eliminated. The Houston Astros look particularly dangerous, but I still have questions about their pitching. So yeah, I think the winner of this series will be the best team by a significant margin. Small samples might neutralize that, but the Giants and Dodgers have a distinct advantage over the rest of the field.
Keown: The team that wins Game 5 will go to the World Series, but I’ve seen enough of the Braves to predict it won’t be easy. My World Series prediction, which means nothing and should be treated as such, was the Astros over the Giants. Houston’s attack is good enough to overcome his starting pitching, and that’s saying a lot. There’s almost no confidence behind it, but I’m sticking with it because the Astros now look like a team that can get themselves out of almost any predicament.
So: which team will win tonight? And who will be the hero?
Gonzalez: The Dodgers will be much more easily equipped for Webb’s east-west approach in Game 5, but the presence of Gausman who can potentially deliver bulk innings behind him – with a completely different pitch mix – plays in the Giants’ favor. That, plus the home field advantage, will propel the Giants to victory. And the big hit will be delivered by Posey because, well, of course.
Keown: Giants in a close one, possibly with extra innings and certainly with the vast majority of the Giants roster. The easy decision is to say that Webb will be the hero, and I fully expect that he will dive deep into the night and get close to his Game 1 appearance, but the hallmark of the Giants’ season is the conga- line of unexpected heroes. I don’t know why, but with leftist Urias pitching, it feels like some kind of Ruf night. He’s 0-for-7 with four strikeouts in the series, meaning he’s either down or ready for a breakout. I say the latter.