NL West looks like a two-team race

The Dodgers appeared to be the early favorite in the NL West, but the Giants have come on strong of late.

Originally Published: June 23, 2004
By Joe Morgan | Special to ESPN.com

At the beginning of the season it appeared the Los Angeles Dodgers were a much better team than their National League West counterparts the San Francisco Giants. In fact, the Dodgers beat the Giants in four of the first five games the teams played against each other.

Jason Schmidt
Getty ImagesGiants ace Jason Schmidt has been virtually unhittable.
It looked at the time as if San Francisco would end up third or fourth in the division, but after winning the first three games of a four-game series this week the Giants now lead the Dodgers by a game and a half in the division.

That turnaround just goes to show the impact left fielder Barry Bonds and starting pitcher Jason Schmidt have on the team. Schmidt has won nine games in a row and has thrown two one-hitters already this season. Every time he goes to the mound, San Francisco feels it's going to win.

Bonds obviously gives them a chance to win every time he's in the middle of the lineup and manager Felipe Alou is finally starting to get some offense out of the various lineups he has put on the field. Alou has continued to put players in different spots in the lineup and different positions on the field, something that can excite a player. If you're hitting in the fifth spot in the lineup and Alou suddenly moves you to second in the order that show of confidence can pump you up.

Alou has also experimented with a lot of different guys hitting behind Bonds in the lineup: Edgardo Alfonzo, Michael Tucker, A.J. Pierzynski and Pedro Feliz (who was also moved to shortstop to get more offense on the field). But the only consistent offensive player other than Bonds has been Marquis Grissom, who is been seeing great pitches hitting in front of Bonds. Besides Grissom no one else has stayed put in the lineup for any length of time.

Because of that mixing and matching you have to give Alou a lot of credit for keeping this team together. The Giants looked dismal early on and were headed downhill, but he has gotten the most out of the guys he has to work with. Most have been inconsistent, but Alou has gotten everything he can out of them by using each guy in the right spots for his strengths.

The San Francisco bullpen has also looked good because of the way Alou has used it. The Giants have been without a true closer since Robb Nen went down with a shoulder injury, but Alou made Matt Herges the closer and while Herges has not been as consistent as the Giants would like he has done a good job on occasion. Alou also brought Tyler Walker up from the minors to provide some timely help, though Walker has struggled lately.

Herges blew a save Monday against the Dodgers. The Giants eventually won the game in the bottom of the ninth, but showed there is no reason to think games are automatically over when he goes to the mound for the ninth inning.

The bigger weakness, though, is that San Francisco really does not have a good starting rotation. Schmidt and Jerome Williams fill the top two spots but Kirk Rueter is a five-inning pitcher at best in the No. 3 spot and has a losing record on the season. Beyond those three, San Francisco does not really know who's going to be on the mound.

Comparing all that to the positives the Dodgers have the race for the division crown doesn't look close, but pitching is not the only factor here. The game is also about intangibles and the Giants, especially the manager, bring those to the field every day.

They were eight games under .500 at one point and could have caved when everything was going wrong, but the Giants offer a great look at what a team can do it if pulls together and the manager knows what he's doing. There is a weakness in the rotation, but San Francisco does have a shot to win the West.

The Dodgers don't have to score six runs every time out, but they do need a few and they're probably not capable of doing that with their current offense.

Los Angeles currently leads the division, but the Dodgers' lack of offense will become an issue later in the season because their starting pitching is not as strong as last year. This year's offense combined with last year's pitching -- Kevin Brown as the ace, quality starts from Hideo Nomo, Kaz Ishii and Odalis Perez -- would make L.A. the favorite but everything is not coming together like it did a year ago.

Two of the Dodgers' last five losses have been charged to Nomo, and they don't have a dominating guy as their No. 1 starter. But the bullpen has been just as effective with closer Eric Gagne continuing his success despite the loss of setup man Paul Quantrill.

The offense will need to pick up the slack from the rotation and needs to add at least one more quality bat to make it all work. Los Angeles is depending on Milton Bradley to be an RBI man at the top of the order but is asking too much from the young outfielder. Bradley was hitting well when he went down with an injury last year, but he has never played a full season at the major-league level and will not become a prototype No. 3 hitter just because he is in that spot in the lineup.

The only player who has driven in runs consistently is Adrian Beltre, and while the Dodgers are getting a little more production from Juan Encarnacion lately they need Shawn Green to produce. He is their main guy and has not come through with the RBI or power numbers needed. Catcher Paul Lo Duca is hitting for a high average but not driving in runs or hitting with authority, and because he is not a speedy runner most of his hits end with him staying at first base.

The Dodgers don't have to score six runs every time out, but they do need a few and they're probably not capable of doing that with their current offense. If they can add one or two good bats and get more production from Green they would have the edge in the race, but the same could be said of the Giants if they get ahold of a quality starting pitcher.

I felt at the beginning of the season that the San Diego Padres were a darkhorse in the division and they were in first place for much of the early part of the year, but the Padres seem to have fallen apart and are now just three games above .500. That makes it pretty much a two-team race for the division, although the Arizona Diamondbacks will have something to say about which team wins because of the chance Randy Johnson gives them every time he takes the mound.

As it stands right now the Dodgers and Giants rate pretty evenly, each having one main weakness. Both are one player away from dominance in the division and whichever team helps its cause more at the trading deadline will be the true favorite.

Congrats to Griffey
Congratulations to Ken Griffey Jr. on hitting his 500th home run. I knew him as a kid before he ever hit a single homer and to see him where he is as an adult is amazing. A lot of people are saying the 500-home run mark is not what it used to be, but neither is the dollar and no one is throwing that away.

500 is still a fantastic number, one that shows a lot of ability and perseverance. As Reggie Jackson once said, "You can set out to play every game and you can set out to be a good hitter, but no one sets out to hit 500 home runs."

The point is that a lot can be accomplished through hard work but milestones like that only happen with a lot of ability.

An analyst for ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball, Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan won back-to-back MVP awards with the Reds in 1975 and '76 (the Reds won the World Series both years). He contributes a weekly column to ESPN.com.

ALSO SEE