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From stare-downs to pitching duels, Dodgers getting early taste of postseason

LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Dodgers already seem to be in playoff mode, where runs are hard to come by and games often are down-to-the-wire affairs.

Pitchers’ duels have ruled the first two games of a key series against the San Francisco Giants, with more stinginess expected in Wednesday night’s finale when Dodgers starter Kenta Maeda faces the Giants' Matt Moore.

On Tuesday, it was not a left-handed starter who gave the Dodgers issues but rather Giants right-handed starter Johnny Cueto, who pitched until he couldn’t anymore. Cueto exited with a left groin injury, having delivered 5 1/3 scoreless innings in an eventual 2-0 San Francisco win. One night earlier, Giants ace Madison Bumgarner crafted seven scoreless of his own, though the Dodgers rallied in the ninth to win 2-1.

After Tuesday's game, the first-place Dodgers lead the Giants by five games in the NL West, and the Giants are in a three-way tie with the Mets and Cardinals for the NL's two wild-card spots.

To those brimming with confidence, the Dodgers have gone toe-to-toe with the rival Giants this week in a playoff atmosphere, against two accomplished pitchers, winning once and in position to win another. To those a little more skeptical, the Dodgers are not doing enough against a reeling Giants squad and are Monday’s ninth-inning rally away from panic in the streets.

After Wednesday’s series finale, more optimists could be pessimists or more pessimists could be optimists. It’s just the way it works this time of year.

What seems most important of all, perhaps, is that the Dodgers are already being forced to deal with the massive swing of emotions that come with October baseball. As spring training is to the regular season, the Dodgers are getting in some playoff prep this week against the Giants, with the ballpark filled to the brim and emotions turning on a dime.

And while the intensity has certainly ramped up of late, many would like to believe the Dodgers have been playing with a back-to-the wall mentality for some time now.

“I feel like we have been playing like this since the start of the second half, trying to catch up [in the standings],” Dodgers catcher Yasmani Grandal said. “Everybody is trying to make the postseason here. The games are going to be tight. They’re not going to give it to you, so we have to do it ourselves. The key is to win every series, and if we do that we will be division champions and we will be in the playoffs.”

Before the current Giants series, the Dodgers went through another major test with a 10-game road trip against the Miami Marlins, New York Yankees and Arizona Diamondbacks. The division-rival Diamondbacks might have already come to terms with the fact that the postseason won’t happen for them this year, but they still provided a stern test in four division games.

The Dodgers went 5-5 on the trip -- nothing to pronounce them ready for the grind ahead, but of course they were all road games. And an even record through 10 games of postseason play would not necessarily mean elimination; if the victories and losses were placed just right, a 5-5 record through 10 playoff games could mean a 3-2 deficit in the NLCS. Not the ideal scenario, especially without home-field advantage in the series, but that's life.

Now throw some home games into that mix, and the Dodgers would like to think the baseball they are playing now could be the prelude to peak play in October. The past two weeks have replicated postseason baseball for the Dodgers.

“It does -- it feels like playoff baseball with about 15 extra players [on the roster],” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “But the intensity, the magnitude [of the Giants series], there is a sense of that, certainly.”

Roberts’ point, of course, is that with a 36-man roster he can manage these games a little different than he would manage an October game with his best 25. Those players on either side of the fringe know that, however, so Roberts is actually getting the best that the bottom of his roster has to offer right now.

Those players know that anything less than high-quality baseball over these last two weeks will leave them watching playoff games on television. And if there is one thing Roberts has shown in his rookie managing season, it's that he likes to use his entire roster.

Guys like Andrew Toles and Grant Dayton have appeared to make a case to be on the playoff roster. Julio Urias is out to show he can be a serious option out of the bullpen. Jose De Leon wants to show that if a fourth starter is needed in postseason play, he could be the guy.

And then there is the continued goal of getting both Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill up to speed come playoff time. Kershaw threw 88 pitches in his last start and seems to be working only on his sharpness after just three starts since returning from the disabled list. Hill threw 77 pitches Tuesday, and his exit was more a circumstance of the situation, since his spot in the batting order was due up in the next inning and the Dodgers needed some offense.

The timing appears to be close, but both pitchers should be at full strength come Oct. 7, which would be the first day of the National League Division Series. And after Kershaw missed 75 days (lower-back injury) and Hill missed six weeks (blister issues), their arms should be fresh, assuming nothing else ails them physically.

The Dodgers might be monitoring Hill’s blister issue on an inning-to-inning basis, but the left-hander says he is just focused on executing the pitches.

“It’s been such a crazy season, with time off and then getting back into it,” Hill said. “I think I fielded some questions where people were surprised that I was able to come back and pitch with the lack of rehab starts. I think that is something that the moment presents itself and the occasion rises to you and you’re ready to perform. It’s not something that necessarily you have to rise to the occasion.”

It certainly sounds as if Hill is ready for the road ahead. Or is the road ahead ready to welcome Hill aboard?

And how close is Kershaw to feeling like himself? It really is the biggest question surrounding the Dodgers these days, outside of what day they might be able to clinch a playoff spot.

“It’s a good question; I think it depends on the day,” Kershaw said. “I think in New York [last Wednesday] I felt really good physically. Stuff-wise, everything was coming out the way I wanted it to come out. [On Monday] it wasn’t like that, but that could just be that you aren’t going to have your best stuff every time. Physically, I feel good, no complaints. Arm feels good, back’s fine, so maybe it’s a day when you don’t have your good stuff.”

That doesn't mean Monday was without its positives.

“Getting the pitch count back up, making sure my body bounces back and I’m feeling good, so that is all positives,” Kershaw said. “I was able to kind of grind through [Monday’s start], which was good too.”