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The NL West is baseball's best division. And Giants-Dodgers may finally get its October run

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As the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers meet for the first of 19 games on Friday night, there’s far more to embrace than the mere renewal of one of baseball’s greatest rivalries.

In this season of unprecedented inaction and cheapened no-hitters, of position players pitching because there aren’t enough arms to strike out the largely overmatched hitters, the National League West offers a refreshing diversion: The three best teams in baseball in a season-long tug-of-war, and a chance to right a historical blip at the end.

See, in the 26 years since Major League Baseball added a wild card and raised the prospect of intradivision playoff matchups, the Dodgers and Giants have never met in the postseason, a startling anomaly given the teams’ 23 combined playoff berths in that span and the past decade-plus that saw three Giants World Series championships and eight consecutive Dodgers division titles.

The parity of baseball’s wild-card era has produced almost every other NL West matchup beyond Game 162.

Madison Bumgarner, right, may have moved on, but Max Muncy remains a key figure for this weekend's Giants-Dodgers meeting.
Madison Bumgarner, right, may have moved on, but Max Muncy remains a key figure for this weekend's Giants-Dodgers meeting.

Rockies-Padres, Rockies-Dodgers, Padres-Dodgers, Rockies-Diamondbacks, Dodgers-Diamondbacks – all have come up in one-game playoffs or postseason series. Across the majors, we’ve seen more than enough Yankees-Red Sox, Cardinals-Cubs, Braves-Mets, Yankees-Rays.

In 2021, the NL West may provide its own sub-regional to the playoffs.

It’s not so much that the Giants (28-16) and Padres (27-17) have the two best records in baseball, while the Dodgers (26-18) trail only the Chicago White Sox. Rather, it is the precision with which they’re winning that gives one pause to consider the three-team shootout that may lie ahead.

They tout the top three earned-run averages in baseball, and all three rank in the upper third or higher in myriad pitching metrics, most notably Nos. 2, 7 and 8 in walks per nine innings. It’s fair to wonder whether the Giants staff – including a motley rotation assembled admirably by GM and former Dodger exec Farhan Zaidi can sustain their good run. While the Padres and Dodgers rank first and fifth, respectively, in strikeouts per nine innings, the Giants rank 20th, leaving the door ajar for more balls to find holes through the season’s last three quarters.

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Yet the Giants rank fifth in Expected Batting Average (the Dodgers first, the Padres sixth), so it’s not like they’ve been dodging bullets; they just need to keep impeccably hitting their spots.

Meanwhile, if you’re tired of flailing hitters, you might appreciate this trio.

The Dodgers, Padres and Giants rank first, second and fourth in lowest chase percentage, a reflection on their organizations’ ability to identify or develop discipline among their hitters. Padres hitters have produced the sixth-fewest strikeouts among MLB teams and while the Dodgers and Giants rank fifth and ninth, they are getting bang for their whiffs: The Giants’ 62 home runs are second in the majors’, the Dodgers’ .753 OPS tops in the NL.

The Giants are a particularly fascinating study, what with mid-30s sluggers Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt and Evan Longoria seeming to hammer every proper pitch to hit, while former MVP Buster Posey has produced eight home runs and a 1.108 OPS in limited duty one year after he opted out of the season.

It is fair to wonder when the wheels might wobble on this crew, particularly Crawford, whose 11 homers equal his 2019 season total and whose .899 OPS far outkicks the .704 mark he produced from 2017 to 2020.

At the same time, Zaidi’s calling card has always been to build quality depth, and this year’s Giants have a handful of plug-and-play options. None have been more important than backup catcher Curt Casali, batting just .107 but a valued backstop who caught five consecutive shutouts earlier this season and allows Posey to rest comfortably.

Sort of sounds like a mini-version of the Dodgers, who still come at you in waves despite a bevy of losses, most notably former MVP Cody Bellinger, who begins a rehab assignment Friday.

The rivalry may look a bit more vanilla these days, with no Madison Bumgarner or Yasiel Puig; hard to imagine Kevin Gausman stalking Max Muncy around the bases after a home run, inspiring Muncy's creative defining of various bodies of water.

That’s OK. While there’s lots of season left, the probability is high that the West will claim both wild card berths, and the division winner will sport the NL’s best record.

(For the record, the Dodgers are currently given a 99% chance to make the playoffs, the Padres 97%, the Giants 88%).

That would give us a Dodgers-Giants wild-card game, or maybe Dodgers-Padres, or perhaps Padres-Giants. Either way, the third team would be awaiting the survivor in the NL Division Series.

And perhaps a storied intrastate rivalry will finally get its October due.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB's best division renews its greatest rivalry with Giants-Dodgers