Giants rivalry gets a jolt after the break

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
7:00
AM PT
It is fair to say that Miguel Montero is not a fan of the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Arizona Diamondbacks catcher, whose locker was – awkwardly – right next to Yasiel Puig’s for two days at the All-Star Game in Minneapolis, is kind of blunt about it.

Montero was asked to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the two teams vying for control of the NL West and, in the middle of his answer, he blurted out, “I don’t know. I really like the Giants a little better than the Dodgers.”

[+] EnlargeYasiel Puig; Miguel Montero; Ian Kennedy
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesYasiel Puig and Miguel Montero, who were locker room neighbors at the All-Star Game, have a history of bad blood that includes a collision at home plate last season.
The Dodgers can only hope the rest of the division doesn’t feel that way or, if it does, that those three teams don’t play any harder against them than against the Giants, because their playoff hopes could hang in the balance.

The Dodgers, who lead the Giants by one game, have only 65 games remaining, including 12 head-to-head games with San Francisco, starting July 25 at AT&T Park. The Dodgers have 20 games left against the three other teams in their division, teams they have dominated to climb into first place.

Montero, it should be noted, has a history of bad blood with the Dodgers. Puig collided with him at home plate last season and appeared to glare in his direction afterward, prompting a finger wag from Montero, who criticized Puig to the media. He was in the middle of the teams’ fight at Dodger Stadium in June of 2013.

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Montero said he has a fondness for San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy and prefers San Francisco’s style of play to the Dodgers’. He does give the Dodgers an edge over San Francisco in terms of offensive firepower, but would award “intangibles” to the Bay Area team, it’s fair to say.

“They kind of respect the game. They go out there and play the game really hard,” Montero said of the Giants, before gesturing in the direction of some Dodgers' All-Star game lockers. “These guys, too… They’ve got a great pitching staff. One to five, you can’t go wrong and they’ve got a really good offense. I don’t know, I just like the Giants better, just me personally. They’re a sneaky team, quieter.”

With Puig on their team, nobody has called the Dodgers “quiet” lately, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t good. They just haven’t been particularly good when they play the Giants so far, going 3-7 in head-to-head matchups. On the other hand, they have gone 26-10 against the three sub-.500 teams in their division while the Giants have gone just 18-18 against those teams. It’s that disparity, largely, that allowed the Dodgers to make up 10 games in the standings in about four weeks.

But what, exactly, will that dramatic June charge set up? Could this be the great Giants-Dodgers pennant race the teams’ fans have been missing for the last 10 years, or are the Dodgers in the midst of sailing right on by the Giants? Is the balance of power about to swing dramatically in the Giants’ favor once again?

“Baseball is exciting when there are close races. As a competitor you live for that,” said San Francisco’s Hunter Pence. “We’ll see. It can go a lot of different ways. The future is yet to be told, and that’s why we play the games.”

A hot-and-heavy Giants-Dodgers pennant race hasn’t really materialized in 10 years, since Steve Finley’s dramatic grand slam at Dodger Stadium. The Dodgers made the playoffs in 2006, 2008, 2009 and last year. They were in the hunt late in 2012, but they were vying with the St. Louis Cardinals for the wild card. The Giants, who had already sewn up the division, eliminated them from playoff contention.

The Giants held dominion over the West in 2010 and 2012 on their way to World Series titles. They were non-factors from 2005 to 2009.

The teams' clashing personalities, equal parts image and reality, have spiced up the rivalry lately. How many times have we heard about the Giants’ chemistry? How many times have we heard about the Dodgers’ payroll or been reminded of Puig's theatrics?

“There are a couple of guys that have exuberant personalities on our squad, but for the most part it’s guys who are quiet and go about their business,” said veteran Giants pitcher Tim Hudson. “The Dodgers… I mean, it’s L.A. It’s an exciting city and they can be an exciting team. It’s just two different kinds of personalities, but two very good clubs.”

The most public display of how differently the teams approach the game came in May, when Puig and Madison Bumgarner exchanged words near home plate after a Puig home run. Apparently, Bumgarner didn’t like Puig’s pace around the bases. The Dodgers were baffled that anyone would take offense, especially since Puig had been far more demonstrative at other times. Dodgers manager Don Mattingly called it a “double standard,” and several Dodgers pointed out that Angel Pagan has his own way of celebrating his hits.

“I played back when things would have been frowned upon 10 or 15 years ago, but now, you know what, the style of play guys are bringing to the field every day is relatively accepted,” Hudson said. “You change with the times. I don’t want to be the old-fogey grumpy guy that gets mad when somebody stares at a homer.”

Personalities aside, the teams really aren’t that different in terms of execution. They both rely on stingy starting pitching as their primary defense.

“Just really deep, talented teams all the way through,” was how Arizona’s All-Star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt put it.

The Dodgers are certainly mindful of their remaining games with the Giants. They lined up their pitching rotation out of the break so that Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu would all pitch in San Francisco. That means No. 4 starter Dan Haren, who struggled entering the break, will pitch Friday night in St. Louis.

Maybe it will come down to those games. Or, perhaps one lowly team in the division will get to play spoiler. The Dodgers conclude their season against the Colorado Rockies. The Giants finish up against the San Diego Padres.

“You never know, maybe we can go on a run and get back in it,” Montero said. “If not, hopefully we can screw somebody else.”

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.

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TEAM LEADERS

BA LEADER
Yasiel Puig
BA HR RBI R
.296 16 69 92
OTHER LEADERS
HRA. Gonzalez 27
RBIA. Gonzalez 116
RY. Puig 92
OPSY. Puig .863
WC. Kershaw 21
ERAC. Kershaw 1.77
SOC. Kershaw 239