Despite having led the NL West three weeks ago and recently adding some big names, the Los Angeles Dodgers won't be able to escape second place this weekend.
The San Francisco Giants have overcome losing a marquee player to jump well past them.
This pivotal three-game set in the Bay Area starts Friday night with one of the Dodgers' star acquisitions getting his first taste of this rivalry, as Josh Beckett goes up against Tim Lincecum in a matchup of former aces having mediocre seasons.
"It is a big series," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "This is September baseball. You're watching the scoreboard and it's going to be intense. This is why you play the game."
San Francisco (77-60) has a 4 1/2-game division lead over second-place Los Angeles. The Dodgers (73-65) were alone atop the West as recently as Aug. 19 but have since lost 10 of 16, including a 5-7 record following the blockbuster trade with Boston for Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford.
While Crawford is out for the year and Gonzalez is plenty familiar with the Giants from his time with San Diego, Beckett (1-1, 2.92 ERA) hasn't pitched against them since 2005 as a member of the Marlins.
As Lincecum (8-14, 5.21) has matched his career high for losses, Beckett has surpassed his due to a 5-11 record and 5.23 ERA with Boston. He's been solid in two starts with the Dodgers and won the last one, striking out nine in 6 2-3 innings of a 2-1 victory over Arizona on Saturday.
"We got to figure out some way to win some series. We got some tough ones coming up against the Giants," Beckett said. "I kind of need to read up on where everybody is at."
The Giants player he's faced the most is Melky Cabrera, the All-Star outfielder who won't return any sooner than the playoffs due to his 50-game suspension for performance enhancing drugs.
One of the left field fill-ins for Cabrera has been Xavier Nady, but his status is uncertain after straining a hamstring Wednesday. Nady is 4 for 12 with two doubles and three RBIs in five games since having his contract purchased from the minors Saturday.
"This is a big blow for us because he was swinging the bat well," Bochy said. "We'll have to get creative out there."
San Francisco is 13-7 since losing Cabrera, sweeping three games at Los Angeles from Aug. 20-22 when the teams last met.
Lincecum won the second game as he went 5 2-3 innings in a 4-1 victory, an example of how he's pitched better since the All-Star break but not like a two-time Cy Young Award winner. He's 5-4 in 10 starts with a 3.26 ERA - about half what it was before the break - though he's averaged less than six innings and five strikeouts over the past six.
"That's not the same guy we saw winning Cy Youngs," Cubs manager Dale Sveum said Saturday after Lincecum beat his team with 6 1-3 strong innings in a 5-2 win. "The command, the velocity with the fastball, that's completely different than it was a few years ago."
Lincecum, though, has a 2.08 ERA over his past eight starts against the Dodgers. Gonzalez and Matt Kemp have hit a combined .218 (17 for 78) with no homers against him.
Gonzalez has not gone deep in 11 games since homering in his Dodgers debut Aug. 25, but he's 7 for 17 with four RBIs over the last four games. Kemp is in a 3-for-25 slump and has one homer in his last 24 games.
Los Angeles pulled off a three-game sweep July 27-29 when it last visited San Francisco, which has lost 14 of 21 at home.
"We've got to turn the page because we've got a big series coming up," Kemp said. "And every series is a must-win, so we've got to go out there and play every game like it's our last one."