The National League Division Series between the NL West champion Giants and the defending World Series champion Dodgers comes down to a deciding Game 5 at San Francisco's Oracle Park.
Ahead of the grand finale, ESPN baseball experts Alden Gonzalez and Tim Keown tackle some of the key questions about the series so far -- and what it might mean for the clincher.
Has this NLDS lived up to the hype -- and will tonight's finale surpass it?
Gonzalez: It's pretty incredible that we're four games into this series and have yet to experience a single lead change. But that doesn't take away from how tense these games have felt. Big, series-altering moments have been sprinkled throughout, but they have been subtle. Like Logan Webb recording an out on a slow roller up the first-base line in the eighth inning of Game 1, atoning for an error he made on almost the exact same play four innings earlier. Or Cody Bellinger ambushing Dominic Leone's first-pitch fastball in the sixth inning of Game 2, breaking out of mystifying struggles in dramatic fashion. Or Steven Duggar, in the lineup for his defense, running down a deep drive by Chris Taylor through hellish winds in the sixth inning of Game 3. Or Walker Buehler, starting on short rest for the first time in his career, pitching around back-to-back singles in the second inning of Game 4, setting an important tone for a performance that saved the Dodgers' season. Expect more of these.
Keown: Game 5 creates its own hype, so whatever has happened to this point -- and it has been a good but not great series, in my opinion -- will be subsumed by the energy and anticipation of a deciding game. Given the previous 23 games between these two teams in 2021, there's every reason to believe the last one will be tight and well-played. It's cool, and fitting, that they get the entire stage to themselves.
What has surprised you most through the first four games?
Gonzalez: How good Gavin Lux has looked. He nearly tied the game with two outs in the ninth inning of Game 3, sending a deep drive to center that was knocked down by the wind, then got the start in Game 4 and reached base four times, drawing a couple of walks and lining a couple of singles. Lux, 23, has been one of the Dodgers' most heralded prospects over the past handful of years, a future cornerstone the team refused to trade in multiple instances. But he struggled mightily through infrequent plate appearances in 2020 and didn't take advantage of an opportunity for semi-regular playing time in 2021. Lux made two trips to the injured list, was demoted to the minors in late August, then learned to play the outfield in a desperate effort to contribute. When he came back up on Sept. 10, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts noticed a calmer, more efficient load and approach. It began to translate into production that spilled into the postseason, assuring that Lux will start in the winner-take-all Game 5. "He'll be in there somewhere," Roberts said Tuesday night.
Keown: How much the Giants have missed Brandon Belt's production in the middle of the order. When Belt and Max Muncy were declared out for this round of the playoffs, the depth of the Giants' roster seemed like a major advantage. It hasn't turned out that way. It's clear Bellinger has been gaining confidence with each at-bat, and Lux is turning himself into a problem for San Francisco. The Giants have gotten production from Tommy La Stella, Kris Bryant and Buster Posey. Evan Longoria has looked good just once, but it won Game 3. The lack of production from LaMonte Wade Jr., Mike Yastrzemski and Darin Ruf is surprising; taken individually, it wouldn't be a big deal, but they're all struggling at the same time. During the Giants' hero-of-the-day regular season, that was rare.
The best play I've seen so far in this series is ...
Gonzalez: This series is completely different if not for the leaping catch Brandon Crawford made late in Game 3. The Giants led by a run in the bottom of the seventh, with runners on first and second and two outs. Mookie Betts smoked a 100-mph line drive with an expected batting average of nearly .900. It wasn't just that Crawford was athletic enough to catch it, but that he was positioned perfectly to do so, a fitting representation of what has made the Giants such an impressive defensive team this season.
Keown: We're going to differentiate between aesthetics and importance here. The double play turned by La Stella and Crawford on Justin Turner in the fourth inning of Game 1 was among a handful of the best defensive plays of the entire season. La Stella fielded the ball on the third-base side of second with all of his momentum heading toward left field, made a backhand flip to Crawford, who glided over the bag like a speed skater and made a cross-body throw to first. Each runner was out by the length of a shoelace, making it obvious how perfect all of it -- the flip, the turn, the throw -- had to be. However, the most important play was Crawford's catch of Betts' liner in the seventh inning of Game 3, but here's where Crawford's ho-hum brilliance comes into play: If you've watched him closely this season, you would have been surprised if he didn't make that catch.
The X factor has been ...
Gonzalez: For the Dodgers, it has undoubtedly been Buehler. He took the loss in Game 1, but he gave his team a chance to win despite Webb's dominance on the other side. More importantly, his taking the ball on short rest in Game 4 assured that the Dodgers would navigate through this series with their top three starters (Buehler, Max Scherzer and Julio Urias). The loss of Clayton Kershaw -- and Trevor Bauer and Dustin May and Danny Duffy and, don't forget, Cole Hamels -- leaves a big question in the fourth spot of the Dodgers' rotation. Their key to advancing through October will be for Buehler, Scherzer and Urias to absorb as many of the starts as possible, if not all of them. Any other circumstance could exhaust the Dodgers' bullpen.
Keown: Dodger hitters rediscovering their patience after flailing at everything Webb threw at them in Game 1. Webb pounded the zone early, got the Dodgers in swing mode and then used his off-speed pitches to expand. After the game, he was shushed by Posey in the interview room when he suggested that was the game plan. The Dodgers, normally a disciplined group that runs up pitch counts in that ultra-modern way, appeared more than happy to accommodate. From that point on, though, even while losing 1-0 in Game 3, the Dodgers became more discerning. As a result, they were able to get themselves into advantageous counts and seek out mistakes. It sets up an intriguing sidelight to Game 5: Was this a Dodgers thing, or a Webb thing?
What will be the impact of returning to San Francisco?
Gonzalez: The Giants will benefit from a raucous Oracle Park crowd that helped fuel them to a 54-27 home record during the regular season, but the biggest advantage -- aside from batting last, an important element of a series that has been so close -- is how their pitching lines up. Webb, who threw 7⅔ scoreless innings in Game 1, will be fully rested. But so will Kevin Gausman, who can provide whatever the Giants need out of the bullpen. And so will lights-out Camilo Doval, who recorded six outs in Game 3 but wasn't used in Game 4. It's easy to envision a scenario in which the Giants use only those three pitchers on Thursday night, though inevitably, one would think, Tyler Rogers will factor in.
Keown: The scene inside Oracle Park before Game 1, the first postseason game between these two rivals, was wild. Fans walked shoulder to shoulder through concourses and up ramps chanting "Beat L.A." so vehemently you could feel it in your fillings. That figures to be tame compared to a Game 5, winner-take-all game between these two teams, but it's not the atmosphere alone that is working in San Francisco's favor. The Game 3 win allowed the Giants to keep Webb on normal rest and put the Northern California native in front of the home crowd again. He hasn't been around that long, but he has definitely given every indication he thrives off the big moment. This one is the biggest.
You both predicted before this series that the winner would go on to the World Series. Do you still believe that? And from what you've seen from the rest of the teams in the playoffs this week, will they win it?
Gonzalez: Heading in, there were two teams that I thought would give the Dodgers or the Giants trouble. One was the Milwaukee Brewers, but that was before Devin Williams punched himself out of the postseason. The other was the Tampa Bay Rays, the only other team that can pitch and execute and match up with either of the two. Both have been eliminated. The Houston Astros look especially dangerous, but I still have questions about their pitching. So, yes, I think the winner of this series will be the best team remaining by a significant margin. Small samples might neutralize that, but the Giants and Dodgers have a clear advantage over the rest of the field.
Keown: The team that wins Game 5 will go to the World Series, but I've seen enough from the Braves to feel safe in predicting it won't be easy. My World Series prediction, which means nothing and should be treated as such, was the Astros over the Giants. Houston's offense is good enough to overcome its starting pitching, and that's saying a lot. There's almost no confidence behind this, but I'm sticking with it because the Astros right now look like a team that can hit itself out of almost any predicament.
So: Which team will win tonight? And who will be the hero?
Gonzalez: The Dodgers will be far more readily equipped for Webb's east-west approach in Game 5, but the presence of Gausman potentially providing bulk innings behind him -- with a completely different pitch mix -- plays in the Giants' favor. That, plus the home-field advantage, will propel the Giants to victory. And the big hit will be delivered by Posey because, well, of course.
Keown: Giants in a close one, possibly involving extra innings and definitely involving the vast majority of the Giants' roster. The easy call is to say Webb will be the hero, and I fully expect him to pitch deep into the night and come close to his Game 1 performance, but the hallmark of the Giants' season has been the conga line of unexpected heroes. I don't know why, but with lefty Urias pitching, it feels like a Ruf kind of night. He's 0-for-7 with four strikeouts in the series, which means he's either slumping or due for a breakout. I say the latter.