First place the prize as Dodgers clash with Giants

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LOS ANGELES — It will be the Los Angeles Dodgers against the San Francisco Giants this week with first place on the line. Of course, it is.

Plenty has changed in the 72 days since the West Coast rivals last met, but with 41 days remaining until the end of the season, just one game separates the teams in the National League West standings.

For the Dodgers, playing host to the Giants in a three-game series is only half of the challenge ahead this week. Another three games follow against the Chicago Cubs, owners of the best record in baseball.

Despite an avalanche of injuries, including the devastating one to Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers have not only kept themselves in contention, they have moved atop their division. They already have placed a National League-record 26 players on the disabled list this season, yet sit in first place with six weeks to go before the start of the postseason.

The next six days at home will be a test of the Dodgers’ playoff worthiness, at least for the current roster. The Dodgers still expect Kershaw to return at some point in September, with others expected to provide a boost at some point, including Trayce Thompson, Louis Coleman, Scott Van Slyke and possibly Alex Wood to give some innings in relief.

The Dodgers, though, have to be pleased with the team they have morphed into. Where Kershaw was a one-man band in April and May, the bullpen and offense have grown considerably. The Dodgers haven’t quite figured out the starting pitching recipe without Kershaw, but they still have a 28-19 record since he last participated in a game.

The Dodgers were eight games behind the Giants in the NL West when Kershaw went down with a back injury after his June 26 start at Pittsburgh. At the All-Star break, they were 5½ back, lifted by a 7-3 homestand to close out the first half.

And while the Dodgers have not necessarily played red-hot baseball after the break, a downturn by the Giants helped them make up ground.

The Giants went 2-11 at the start of the second half, losing the first six games after the break. The Dodgers went just 7-6 over their first 13 games of the second half, but still made up ground in the standings.

To illustrate just how bad things have been going for the Giants of late, their 11-23 record in the second half is the worst in baseball, and they are just 5-12 on the road since the break.

The Dodgers are coming off a 4-3 road trip to Philadelphia and Cincinnati, punctuating the winning excursion Monday with an 18-9 victory over the Reds, their first 18-run game since 2006. The Dodgers hit four home runs in the fifth inning Monday, their most in an inning since the same 2006 season when they hit four consecutive in the ninth inning of a game against the San Diego Padres.

Adrian Gonzalez not only hit three of the Dodgers’ seven home runs Monday, he extended his hit streak to 15 games.

The large margin of victory helped erase the memory of a three-game losing streak on the trip, and also provided momentum for the Giants series. The Dodgers lead the NL in slugging percentage since the break (.457), and that was before their hugely productive game Monday.

But the Giants enter the series having won six of the 10 games the teams have played this season, with a 43-38 run-scoring advantage in those games.

Tuesday’s series opener, which will match the Dodgers’ Kenta Maeda against the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner, will be the first of nine meetings between the teams before the season ends. The teams close out the regular season with three games at San Francisco.



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