Pitching highlighted in tight NL West race

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Dodgers offense had turned it up a notch,
averaging 5.7 runs per game in winning consecutive series in Miami, Pittsburgh
and Atlanta. Purged from LA’s memory was a recent 4-5 homestand as the Dodgers returned
home with buoyed confidence to face the rival San Francisco Giants to open a
series rife with divisional implications.

Enter Madison Bumgarner. Exit Dodger momentum.

The third-year Giants left-hander shut out the Dodgers for eight innings, outdueling
reigning Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw as San Francisco took the opener
2-1 on Monday night at Chavez Ravine.

Bumgarner yielded just four hits, struck out 10, lowered his
ERA to a 2.83 and improved to 14-7.  Kershaw,
who also struck out 10, allowed two runs on six hits over eight innings,
lowering his ERA to 2.87 and falling to 11-7. It was only the third time in the
Live Ball Era in which two pitchers recorded at least 10 strikeouts without
issuing a walk, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

In addition to the sterling efforts on the mound, the two
teams that ranked in the lower third of fielding efficiency combined to put on
a display of All-Star caliber defense.

San Francisco’s Buster Posey threw out two would-be base stealers, right
fielder Hunter Pence made a sliding catch and second baseman Marco Scutaro snared
a potential rally-starting A.J. Ellis line-drive in the eighth inning in support
of the victory. For LA, Kershaw came off the mound and dove into foul territory
to catch a Gregor Blanco bunt attempt, and third baseman Luis Cruz made a
terrific diving stop of a screaming Posey grounder before throwing the Giants
catcher out at first base.

With eight games remaining between the two teams this season, it certainly
appears that baseball fans will be treated to another classic pennant race
between L.A. and The Bay. This series has two more games; the Giants host a
three-game set during the second weekend of September; and the two clubs close the
regular season at Dodger Stadium on Oct. 1-3.

“I hope we have it locked up long before then,” Kershaw said.
“But yeah, I have a feeling those three games might mean something at the
end of the season, for sure.”

Though Los Angeles hit.340 with runners in scoring position on their successful
roadtrip, on Monday it was San Francisco that relied on its opportunistic
tendencies.

Angel Pagan led off the game with a double, took third on Scutaro’s sacrifice
and scored on a Pablo Sandoval sacrifice fly to left field. That would have
been the game-winning RBI had  Hanley
Ramirez not homered with two outs and nobody on in the bottom of the ninth
inning for the Dodgers.

After Kershaw struck out two batters to start the top of the sixth, consecutive
singles by Pagan, Scutaro and Sandoval brought in a valuable insurance run that
became the decisive tally for the Giants.

The Dodgers, on the other hand, ended six different innings with strikeouts,
including a double play to end the fifth inning in which Ellis struck out
swinging as Cruz was thrown out attempting to steal. After so much success in
scoring opportunities during their recent roadtrip, the Dodgers finished 0-for-2
with two strikeouts with runners in scoring position in Monday’s opener.

“We didn’t really give ourselves a lot of chances, obviously,” Dodgers
manager Don Mattingly said. “It was a game where we didn’t get a bunch of
people out there.”

In a game dominated by starting pitching, Bumgarner and Kershaw combined to
throw 232 pitches, 159 of which were strikes. Nearly three quarters of
Kershaw’s 109 pitches found the strike zone.

According to Elias, Kershaw’s 1.39 career ERA against San
Francisco is the lowest ERA by any pitcher against one team since 1920. Though
the stellar efforts against the Giants have continued into this season, his run
support has lagged. Kershaw boasts a 1.74 ERA against San Francisco in 2012,
though he’s only won once in four starts.

He was on the losing end of a 2-0 decision at AT&T Park
on June 26, part of three consecutive San Francisco shutouts while Matt Kemp
and Andre Ethier were out of the lineup due to injury.

“You’re always in for a battle when it’s those guys,” Kershaw said.
“You’ve got to tip your cap to Bumgarner. He pitched awesome. Two ended up
being too many tonight, and that’s just the way it was.”

Mattingly has openly advocated for a less-streaky Dodgers team that relies more
on winning each series instead of falling into a rhythm of sweeping series and
getting swept, a development that defined their inconsistency in late July and
early August.

Though five weeks and two additional series remain between the two classic
rivals, he has still imparted to his team the importance of this series in both
the short and long term. San Francisco leads Los Angeles by a half a game,
while Arizona lurks in third place, five games behind the Giants.

“It’s a big series,” Mattingly said. “They’re all big, honestly.
This time of year — we’ve talked about it, really, since the break. We look at
every game as important. We feel like we want to win every day. So I’m not going
to downplay it from the standpoint of ‘It’s not a big series.’

“We feel like it’s a big series. It was a big game tonight.
At this point it’s over, and we have a big game tomorrow.”

As should be expected between the two traditional NL West powers at this time
of the season, pitching should account for any margin of discrepancy between
the two once the final out has been recorded on Oct. 3.

The Dodgers have benefitted from Chad Billingsley’s ability to successfully
assume the role of a No. 2 starter with wins in six consecutive starts, and
Chris Capuano’s consistency and ability to work deep into games . LA ranks third
in the majors with a 3.34 ERA. The Giants’ ERA of 3.69 is eighth.

“It’s what Giants-Dodgers has always been about, good starting
pitching,” Ellis said.

“Basically, we’re all squared up. Everybody’s there
with the Diamondbacks lurking. This is the time of year when you start kind of
positioning yourself and doing a lot more scoreboard watching, getting ready
for the playoff push. Nothing bigger than head-to-head matchups against your
division rivals.”