On August 22, 1965, the Dodgers and Giants were locked in a titanic battle for the National League pennant. Giants ace Juan Marichal had thrown brushback pitches at two different Dodger batters, knocking them down. So when Marichal came to bat for the first time, you knew something might happen.
Sure enough, Dodgers catcher Johnny Roseboro fired a return throw to pitcher Sandy Koufax just past Marichal's ear. When Roseboro did that a second time, Marichal snapped. In a fit of rage, he clubbed Roseboro over the head with his bat, inciting a bench-clearing brawl. The incident remains one of the most violent in baseball history. It's also typical for the Dodgers-Giants rivalry, one that's been raging since 1890.
Thankfully, this year's Dodgers-Giants battle won't be anywhere near that ugly. Still, with less than seven weeks to go in the season, the two teams are separated by just half a game. That sets up another potentially thrilling finish for two of the oldest and fiercest rivals in sports.
The two NL West rivals being in a near dead-heat doesn't qualify as a surprise, if you consider preseason expectations for both teams.
The Dodgers entered the season going for their fourth straight NL West title. They'd passed on re-signing Zack Greinke, instead spreading their money around on Kenta Maeda, Scott Kazmir, and others. With the best pitcher on the planet at the top of the rotation and a balanced roster behind him, they figured to be strong contenders again this year.
Meanwhile, the Giants looked like formidable rivals. Where the Dodgers used caution in carrying out their offseason plans, San Francisco went all in, splashing nearly a quarter-billion dollars on two veteran right-handers Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija. With two skilled running mates supporting the great Madison Bumgarner, plus #EvenYear juju for the superstitious set, the Giants figured to make this one hell of a race.
Then came June 26. That day something weird happened: Clayton Kershaw looked human. Facing the Pirates, Kershaw gave up four runs on nine hits in six innings, a nuclear meltdown by Kershaw standards, especially in 2016, the best season of his incredible career at that point. Pittsburgh went on to win the game 4-3, dropping L.A. to a season-worst eight games out of first, behind the Giants. Even worse, Kershaw landed on the disabled list the next day with a herniated disk in his back, marking just the second time he'd ever hit the DL.
Something wild has happened since then. The Dodgers have gone 25-16 since Kershaw went on the shelf. They've done so with Brandon McCarthy getting hammered for several starts, then going on the DL himself. With Rich Hill failing to make a single start since the Dodgers acquired him at the deadline. With Bud Norris out with a bad back, Hyun-Jin Ryu sitting due to elbow tendinitis, and Alex Wood out since May after elbow surgery. The six starters L.A. has on the DL would likely form a top-10 rotation ... or better.
Yet here are the Dodgers, in sole possession of first place for the first time in more than three months. And while they couldn't have anticipated this much roster carnage, the season has, in a sense, gone exactly according to plan.
Back in spring training, Dodgers GM Farhan Zaidi talked in great detail about the Dodgers' strategy when it comes to roster-building. First and foremost, he said, they wanted to build sustainable success. That meant focusing on three pillars: youth, data, and depth.
To Zaidi, those three were all connected. He might not have foreseen that Corey Seager would get so good so fast that he'd become an MVP candidate in his first full major league season ... but he knew that developing and acquiring more players with zero to three years of majors and real talent was vital for any club trying to win. He and the rest of the baseball operations department relied on data when they opted not to outbid Arizona's $206.5 million offer for Greinke, because the track record of huge, multi-year deals for pitchers in their 30s is abysmal (and that more broadly, the sport's age curve was favoring players in their mid-20s and younger more than it had in at least a couple decades). By extension, the Dodgers understood that if they weren't going to throw a ton of money at studs like Greinke, they needed to hit a ton of singles and doubles with the rest of the roster, which meant making lots of smaller bets on promising players.
That's exactly what's happened. Maeda cooled off somewhat after a huge start, but he's still an invaluable part of the roster, picking up the battered rotation. Ross Stripling is an unheralded 26-year-old rookie who's put up better-than-league-average numbers by park-adjusted metrics, with one of the league's stingiest home-run rates. Teenage phenom Julio Urias hasn't quite met the prospect-salivating public's sky-high expectations yet, but he still struck out more than a batter an inning while taking the ball every fifth day, before recently moving into a long-man role out of the bullpen.
The good tidings continue throughout the roster. A bullpen that was supposed to be shaky after lights-out closer Kenley Jansen instead leads the NL in Wins Above Replacement. Justin Turner has gone nuts after a slow start, and is one of the hottest hitters in the game. Yasmani Grandal has flirted with the Mendoza Line for much of the season, but he's also on pace to challenge the 25-homer mark, while grading highly by advanced defensive metrics. Joc Pederson still struggles at times with holes in his swing, but he's also been the team's second-best hitter. Even old warhorse Chase Utley's had his moments, including an absolute demolition of his old team on Tuesday night.
Kershaw's injury, combined with the lousy numbers and eventual demotion of firecracker outfielder Yasiel Puig, has left the team short on star power. The Dodgers' resulting committee approach has thus sparked plenty of criticism in L.A., both among fans and media. Still, there's no arguing with results. Zaidi and president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman took a lot of heat for deploying an approach that many critics felt was better suited for the two decision makers' previous places of employment in Oakland and Tampa Bay. Those critics might've had the methodology pegged, they just missed on the fact that building depth is critical for any team to win over a 162-game season, whether you have a $70 million payroll or a $270 million one.
There's a little bit of borrowing from another team's playbook too: The Giants of 2010, 2012, and 2014. The only truly consistent stars over that three-title stretch are Bumgarner and his former MVP battery mate Buster Posey. Even if we now count Cueto as a third bona fide star, the Giants excel because of their multi-talented infield, one that's still one of the league's best even after the trade of Matt Duffy to the Rays. They find a way thanks to role players like Angel Pagan, still overachieving at age 34, so much so that he's been the team's third-best hitter by park-adjusted metrics. They flourish because of no-names turned valuable contributors like Derek Law, the ninth-round draft pick from 2011 who's now the team's best and most reliable reliever.
And if all this praise stems from prudent and somber roster-building styles rather than hot-blooded on-field hatred, consider what these two teams have done over the years against each other, even when no one got bashed over the head with a bat. The Giants stormed back in the late innings to beat the Dodgers in the final game of the second-to-last series of the 1980 season, setting up a one-game playoff that L.A. would drop to the Astros. The Dodgers eliminated the Giants from the playoffs on the second-to-last day of the 1982 season, followed on the final day by the Giants doing the same to the Dodgers, clinching an NL West crown for the Braves instead. The Giants ruined the Dodgers' playoff hopes in the final week of the 1990 and 1991 seasons. The Dodgers then beat the Giants' brains in on the last day of the 1993 season, with a 12-1 blowout win that dropped San Francisco's record to 103-59, leaving them one game short at the end of what many argue was baseball's last great pennant race. You'll find nearly a dozen instances of one team gleefully beating and/or playing spoiler against the other since then.
It's quite possible that the loser of this year's Dodgers-Giants battle will make the playoffs anyway, thanks to the two-wild-card system, and both clubs being several games ahead of the next tier of wild-card challengers. Then again, if one team ekes out a division title and leaves the other to a sudden-death wild-card game that ends in defeat, we'd have another delicious chapter in the rivalry that never ends.