Series preview: Showdown by the Bay

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Los Angeles Dodgers feel pretty good about the hands team returning: Yasiel Puig's odds of starting Friday night against the San Francisco Giants are good and there's some hope Hanley Ramirez will be in the lineup, as well. Both of the Dodgers' best hitters missed all three games against the Pittsburgh Pirates after getting hit on the hand by St. Louis Cardinals pitchers the series before. So, there's that.

And weeks ago, the Dodgers lined up their top three starting pitchers, Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu, with an eye fixed on these next three games at AT&T Park, so they've got that going for them, too.

Actions speak louder than words and everything the Dodgers have done lately indicates the importance of this weekend's series in San Francisco. When the Dodgers fly home late Sunday night, they'll have 56 games remaining -- the equivalent of more than three NFL seasons -- lots of games to play.

But they won't have another crack at the Giants, the team they've traded the division lead with, until Sept. 12. So, yeah, there should be a little extra intensity and focus for these three games. The Dodgers don't want to leave San Francisco staring at a five-game deficit in the standings.

The wild card just isn't the safety net it once was.

Winning a wild-card spot, particularly for a free-spending team like the Dodgers, would leave them susceptible to a quick, unacceptable flameout.

"It's Russian roulette," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "Anything can happen. You can play one game where everything goes wrong, and then your season's over. I'd much rather take my chances in five games to find out who's the better team."

Even if the Dodgers do qualify as a wild-card team and win to advance, they still could run into the Giants in the playoffs. And, so far, they haven't gotten a lot of positive reinforcement that they're the better team. In 10 head-to-head games, the Giants have won seven times.

"It's a big series for us, just because of how the Giants have outplayed us head-to-head," catcher A.J. Ellis said. "We feel like we're a different team now and a better team, but we still have to beat them on the field. They tend to raise their game when they play against us."

And leave all that aside for a minute. There’s also the fact that it's the Dodgers and the Giants, and, generally, they don't like each other very much. The rivalry may not have the edge it once did, but it's certainly not dead. When Puig took his usual leisurely trip around the bases on a home run the last time the teams met, back in May, Madison Bumgarner ambled over to the home-plate area to have a chat. The players could be seen yelling and gesturing at one another on the field.

The Giants have talked about the differences in the teams' "cultures." Mattingly accused the Giants of having a double standard since their players, particularly Angel Pagan, have their own form of exuberant celebrations on the field.

"We've got some flavor on our side, if you want to call it that and they understand that," Dodgers reliever J.P. Howell said. "They stick to the grind and that's cool, too. We've got to beat them to take them out of their game."

Those who favor the Dodgers in this year's race typically point to a more dangerous offense. Some of that is perception, based on the names involved. Some of it is reality. The Dodgers rank third in the National League in runs and slugging percentage. The Giants rank seventh in both categories.

But, interestingly, the Giants actually have hit 13 more home runs than the Dodgers. And Howell said the Giants are a tricky team to pitch to because their hitters tend to share information as the game goes along.

"They're coming up through the lineup and talking sequences and making minor adjustments as the game goes," Howell said. "You're watching and you go, 'The first at-bat, he didn't react like that and now he's doing this.' It’s not like that on every team. You'd think it would be, but a lot of guys stick to what they do. The Giants stick to what could beat that team that day. Those are the tough teams."

Many of the Dodgers do have genuine respect for the Giants' two World Series titles in the past four years and their approach to the game, but that doesn't mean their hackles won't be raised at times this weekend. Howell said the fans tend to bring the intensity to the field in both stadiums, north and south.

Visiting relievers watch games in the dugout at AT&T Park and have to jog out to old-school bullpens along the first-base line to warm up. Howell, who makes his offseason home in San Jose, California, said that's when he usually gets a sense of what this rivalry is all about. The fans remind him.

"As soon as you pop up, it's on," Howell said. "They just tell me how ugly I am or remind me on every pitch how slow I throw. It's pretty awesome, man; it is."