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Tight NL West Race Sets Up Can't Miss Showdown

Kate Rooney |
September 29, 2010 | 6:01 p.m. PDT

Staff Writer

If you haven’t been following the hunt for the National League West title, you should start. Now.  

There’s no better time.  As of Wednesday, the NL West is the only division league-wide in which no team has clinched a playoff berth.

The San Diego Padres and the San Francisco Giants have spent weeks locked in a battle for first place, constantly switching back and forth between top and second banana.  The Giants climbed to a two-game lead with a win over Arizona Tuesday night (and held it Wednesday with another win), the widest margin either club has had since Sept. 8, when the Padres led San Francisco by two.  

The race to the top will likely culminate in an epic showdown between the teams: a three games series, the last of the regular season, beginning on Friday. 

This isn’t your everyday tussle for home-field advantage. Only one team is guaranteed a postseason spot. The Atlanta Braves pulled some ninja-like moves in the Wild Card race and took first place on Monday. Their win against the Marlins Wednesday puts them a game and a half in front of San Diego. 

With Atlanta putting up a last minute fight, it’s very possible only one NL West team will live to see Oct. 6 (the first day of playoffs).       

Back in April, it seemed unlikely the division would come down to a winner-take-all final series. 

Early in the season, the Giants could not get the Padres' monkey off their back. San Diego swept the Boys From the Bay in their first two series.

In fact, of the 13 times the clubs have faced off this year, the Giants have won just four. 

So how will the Giants best the Padres when it really, really matters? 

They’ve started by changing up their pitching rotation.

Giants manager Bruce Bochy pitched Tim Lincecum (16-10, 3.43 ERA) on Wednesday in a switch with Madison Bumgarner (6-6, 3.06 ERA). That little move will free up the two-time Cy Young winner for one of three possible scenarios:  

  1. The Giants fall back, making Sunday's game a must-win. Lincecum pitches on not-quite-full rest in pursuit of the division title.
  2. The Padres and Giants finish Sunday’s game tied, resulting in a one-game playoff on Monday. Lincecum pitches fully rested.
  3. The Giants lock up the title by Saturday. Lincecum is very well rested for playoff game numero uno next Wednesday.

It’s a calculated change that could have a huge payoff, especially when you take into account the rest of the San Francisco starters, who are no slouches. 

Bumgarner, who’s been impressive in his rookie season, will have an extra day of rest to close out the D’Backs series on Thursday. Matt Cain (13-10, 2.96 ERA) and Jonathan Sanchez (12-9, 3.15 ERA) are pitching well down the stretch as well.

The question mark here is Barry Zito.

Zito is set to open the San Diego series and has been downright awful lately, losing eight of his last ten outings and proving unreliable in the clutch. The Giants need a big game from him Friday to set the tone for the series. Especially because…

The Padres are pretty darn stacked in the pitching department themselves.

Wednesday night they started Chris Young, who has pitched just four games this year due to injuries but has given up just two runs in said games. It’s been a little rocky of late for Jon Garland (14-12, 3.58 ERA), Kevin Correia (10-10, 5.40 ERA) and Clayton Richard (13-9, 3.71). But if Garland can keep from falling apart in late innings, Correia can keep his curveball sharp and Richard can give up fewer hits than he has in his last three outings, they’re as good as anyone. 

And then there’s Mat Latos.

Assuming they stick to their normal rotation, the Padres will roll the rookie out on Saturday to face Cain. The 22-year-old is 14-9 with a 2.92 ERA and 185 strikeouts and is a huge reason the Padres exploded early this season.

His last few starts have been rough (and this will be his first truly high-pressure game as a pro), but Latos is trying to prove the wins in his first two games against the Giants weren’t a fluke (his subsequent three starts against them have all resulted in losses). 

To combat Latos and his colleagues the Giants hope Buster Posey (.311 BA, 16 HR, 64 RBI) and Aubrey Huff (.291 BA, 26 HR, 85 RBI) continue their recent trend of coming up with big hits.

For the Padres, Adrian Gonzalez (.298 BA, 30 HR, 98 RBI) and brand-new-to-the-lineup-but-so-far-quite-good Aaron Cunningham will certainly be doing their part. 

Of course, there are also crazy talented closers waiting for them in either dugout when the game is on the line (Giants: see Brian Wilson; Padres: see Heath Bell).

The only way this matchup could be more even is if these teams doctored their statistics. Or if Latos grew a sweet man-mane like Lincecum’s. 

If you’re still not convinced this is a must-watch series, consider this: Giants manager Bochy managed the Padres from 1995-2006, including three NLDS losses and a World Series loss. There's no way he wants them to win with someone else at the helm. 

Padres manager Bud Black interviewed for the Giants job back in ’06 but it went to Bochy, and Black filled Bochy's old spot in San Diego. How good would it feel for him to finally get the Padres a championship at the expense of Bochy and the Giants?  It’s the ultimate managerial throwdown. 

In fact, it's the ultimate throwdown period. And it only gets better this weekend.

Be there.

To reach writer Kate Rooney, click here.

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