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San Francisco Giants make statement with sweep of Los Angeles Dodgers

Is there such thing as a big series in baseball during May?

If there is, the San Francisco Giants just delivered a message to the Los Angeles Dodgers: Don't forget about us.

A week ago, the Giants were scuffling along at 17-18, while the Dodgers were riding one of the hottest offenses in the history of the game and looking like they'd run away with the division title, even with some injuries to the pitching staff.

The Giants won three in a row in Cincinnati heading into this three-game series and then did this:

The NL West race is officially on, as the Giants improved to 7-2 against their rivals in 2015 and are now just 1 1/2 games behind the Dodgers. It was just the 10th time since 1914 the Giants spun three consecutive shutouts, although it's the second time this season. (They also had four consecutive shutouts from June 25-June 28, 2012, with three of those coming against the Dodgers.)

The Dodgers went 0-for-17 with runners in scoring position in the series but the exclamation point was Bumgarner crushing a Clayton Kershaw fastball over the left-field fence on Thursday for the first run of the game, and the only run Bumgarner would need. It was the first home run Kershaw had ever allowed to an opposing pitcher, and if you're into elaborate psychological interpretation, you can say this: Kershaw has the Cy Young Awards, but Bumgarner is Kershaw's daddy.

The two aces have faced off three times this season and the Giants won all three games. Kershaw pitched well enough, allowing eight runs over 20.1 innings, but Bumgarner was a little better, with just three runs allowed in 20.1 innings. That will set up the popular narrative that Bumgarner is the better pitcher than Kershaw, and it's certainly fun debate fodder for sports talk radio and TV shows because it pits the numbers folks versus the "Bumgarner has three rings" group.

The more interesting narrative, however, is how this sets up the rest of the season. Dodgers fans can point to the fact that the Giants held a 10-game lead in the division last June 10 only to see the Dodgers catch them and pull away in the final two weeks to win the division by a comfortable six games. That's simply a reminder that it's a long season and we're just a quarter of the way into it. Even with the return of Hunter Pence and the strong start that suggests this night be a new and improved Lincecum from the past three seasons, the Dodgers remain the big favorite to win the division. Before Thursday's game, FanGraphs projected the Dodgers to finish with 94 wins, the Giants with 84. Baseball Prospectus had the Dodgers at 96 wins, the Giants at 87.

In terms of odds, that means both sites give the Dodgers an 80 percent chance of winning the division. Why such a big edge? For starters, based on the underlying numbers, the Dodgers have been the better team, as seen in their season run differential of plus-48 compared to the Giants' plus-10. The FanGraphs projection system isn't buying Lincecum's hot start (2.08 ERA) but is buying the Dodgers' offense to keep playing at a high level. Carlos Frias and Mike Bolsinger are currently filling in the rotation after the season-ending injuries to Brandon McCarthy and Hyun-Jin Ryu, and while they don't have much of a track record in the majors, they project to post similar numbers to Lincecum and Chris Heston or Matt Cain (when he comes back).

Oh ... and Kershaw is certainly projected to pitch much better than a guy with a 4.32 ERA.

If we look at three big keys for each team, I'd consider these:

Dodgers

1. The back of the rotation. Even if Frias and Bolsinger are projected to be adequate, they still have to prove that's the case. Expect the Dodgers to add a veteran starter at some point. The Cole Hamels and Johnny Cueto rumors will ramp up in July, but the Dodgers want to keep their top prospects. Look for a guy like Aaron Harang, currently pitching well for the Phillies.

2. Jimmy Rollins. He's been the one offensive player who has struggled, hitting .192/.274/.336. Improvement from him the rest of the way will help counterbalance some of the expected drop in numbers from guys like Adrian Gonzalez, Joc Pederson and Justin Turner.

3. Kershaw has to get on a roll. The Dodgers were 94-68 last year -- 23-4 when Kershaw started. They've already lost five games he started this season. The Dodgers look like a better all-around team so far in 2015; everything just hasn't gone right when Kershaw pitched like it did in 2014.

Giants

1. Need to find a solution for third base. It's not Casey McGehee, hitting .190 with two home runs. I'm not sure it's Matt Duffy, who has had some clutch hits but is really more of a utility type. If you start Duffy on a regular basis, that's four guys in the lineup -- Duffy, Joe Panik, Angel Pagan and Nori Aoki -- without much power.

2. Lincecum has continue to pitch well. They need that solid No. 2 to counter the Dodgers' Zack Greinke. You can't count on Cain, who might not be back until the All-Star break, or Jake Peavy, still sidelined with back issues.

3. Brandon Crawford, MVP candidate. He's been the unsung hero so far, hitting .303/.391/.515 with six home runs and 27 RBIs. With his defense, that's made him one of the best players in the league. If he continues at something close to that pace, he gives the Giants that third offensive weapon alongside Pence and Buster Posey.

Prediction: Kershaw soon goes on a roll. The Dodgers win the division by five games. And, hopefully, we get another Kershaw-Bumgarner showdown in the postseason.