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MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Tight Dodgers-Giants race is good for baseball

NL West rivals, battling for first place in division, set for crucial series

Tight Dodgers-Giants race is good for baseball

The Dodgers have a better starting rotation than the Giants. Their offense has scored more runs. They've converted a higher percentage of save chances, too. So why are the Giants alone atop the National League West? Why have they been there almost this entire season?

If you ask a dozen baseball people, there's a decent chance that all of them will tell you the Dodgers have more talent, while in almost the same breath, they'll pick the Giants to win the division.

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What gives? Before we get to that part of the story, let's pause and thank the baseball gods for giving us this kind of playoff race. In the end, we're the lucky ones.

Baseball is better when the Dodgers and Giants are both good. They've been going at one another for around 120 years, and the games today have as much emotion and intensity as they did back in the days of Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays.

They remain two of the sport's cornerstone franchises, both playing to packed houses, both occupying large places in the hearts and minds of their local citizens.

So let's enjoy the ride as the Dodgers and Giants -- separated by a mere 1 1/2 games -- open a three-game series at AT&T Park tonight. The Dodgers have their main guys -- Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu -- lined up, so there could be a change at the top of the standings. The Giants will counter with Tim Lincecum, Ryan Vogelsong and Yusmeiro Petit, who is filling in for injured Matt Cain.

Best of all, the Giants and Dodgers will play six more times after this weekend, including three games at Dodger Stadium the final week of the regular season. If things work out right, the NL West won't be decided until those final few days.

Seeing how the two teams haven't been separated by more than two games the last month, there's a decent chance that's what will happen.

It'll be fascinating to see how it plays out because the teams are dramatically different in so many important ways even as the bottom line on the field is almost identical -- 57-45 Giants versus 56-47 Dodgers.

For one thing, there's Giants manager Bruce Bochy. He's the best in business, or very close to it. Bochy has pretty much already punched his ticket to Cooperstown by winning 1,587 games and two World Series.

Only 19 men have managed more victories, and 14 are already in the Hall of Fame. Of the remaining five, only Ralph Houk also won the World Series twice, and Bochy will likely pass him on the all-time wins list later this summer.

Bochy's success begins with the fact that his decency and honesty plays well in a clubhouse. He has the ability to get his players to focus only on winning one game at a time and committing to that larger thing known as "the team."

If that sounds simple, it's anything but. Also, no manager in the game is better at running a bullpen or putting his players in position to be successful.

Have you heard a player criticize Bochy? In 20 seasons, it has almost never happened. His players like him, but they also respect him. To have all those gifts in one man is rare.

When baseball people compare the Giants and Dodgers, this is where they begin. Don Mattingly is just in his fourth season and has led the Dodgers through periods of turbulence and transition.

Mattingly may someday be held in the same high esteem as Bochy, but that sort of thing is a long time coming. For most managers, it never comes.

On the other hand, Mattingly has perhaps the toughest job in baseball. His bosses handed him a clubhouse of huge salaries and large egos. Perhaps no man could make it all work smoothly.

Mattingly's latest challenge is to keep four veteran outfielders happy, especially Matt Kemp, who isn't happy being moved out of center field even though scouts almost unanimously agree he no longer has the speed to play there.

The Dodgers have offered Kemp around in trades, but that seems unlikely to happen. First, the $120 million remaining on his contract makes him almost impossible to deal. Second, the Dodgers appear to be nervous about trading a 29-year-old who is only three years removed from a 39-homer, 126-RBI season.

The Dodgers would love to add a starting pitcher and at least one reliever, but they'll probably have to part with one of their top prospects, outfielder Joc Pederson. They seem likely to do that only in the right circumstances.

If they can just get to October, the Dodgers have a chance to be frighteningly good with Kershaw and Greinke at the front of the rotation. But do they have enough to catch the Giants or grab one of the NL Wild Card spots? Adding pitching would help. Getting Yasiel Puig and Hanley Ramirez on the field for the stretch run would also help.

Meanwhile, the Giants roll along. With first baseman Brandon Belt and center fielder Angel Pagan on the disabled list, their offense has holes. Without Cain, their rotation is thin.

Yet the Giants do everything else right. They feed off the fire of right fielder Hunter Pence and the professionalism of catcher/first baseman Buster Posey. There's never any controversy or distractions around a Bochy team. They just play hardball.

The Giants, too, would like to add a starting pitcher and possibly a bat. But they've overcome every injury so far, and the Dodgers aren't a perfect team, either. All of which could make for a spectacularly fun finish. Here's to the fun we're having.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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