Last year, they were separated by one game in the regular season. Their playoff series wasn’t decided until the ninth inning of a winner-take-all Game 5.
It was as intense, dramatic and competitive as almost any season in the history of their rivalry, which spans more than a century.
And if Tuesday night was any indication, the Dodgers and San Francisco Giants might do it all over again.
In their first meeting of the season, the Dodgers won 3-1 in front of 43,370 at Dodger Stadium, prevailing in a pitchers’ duel between Julio Urías (six scoreless innings) and Carlos Rodón (two runs and only three hits over six innings).
Yet, like many of their matchups last year — when the 106-win Dodgers were edged out by the 107-win Giants for the National League West title, before knocking the Giants out of the playoffs in a classic five-game NL Division Series — there still wasn’t much to separate two of baseball’s most impressive teams.
“Every time we step on the field with them,” left fielder Chris Taylor said, “it seems like it comes down to the last out.”
Tuesday was no exception.
After the Dodgers took an early lead on Taylor’s two-run single in the second inning, the Giants kept it close the rest of the night.
They scored on a sacrifice fly in the seventh. They sent the potential go-ahead run to the plate in the eighth. And even after the Dodgers tacked on an insurance run, they put the tying runs on base in the ninth before closer Craig Kimbrel picked up his fifth save.
“It’s a great series. It’s a great rivalry,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “It’s very taxing, physically and mentally, because they do such a great job of matching up.”
The Dodgers (15-7) began the day tied with the San Diego Padres for first place in the division, a half-game better than the Giants (14-9).
The Giants led the league in scoring at 4.95 runs per game, just ahead of the Dodgers’ second-best mark of 4.86.
The Dodgers had the majors’ best team earned-run average at 2.33, with the Giants close behind at 3.06, ranking fourth.
“You can forecast looking later into September and October that these two teams could be facing each other again for high stakes,” Roberts said.
While the Dodgers eliminated the Giants in October, their inability to surpass them in the regular-season standings had consequences. They had to play a wild-card game. They had to go on the road in both of their playoff series. By the time the Atlanta Braves finished off the Dodgers in Game 6 of the NL Championship Series, the pursuit of the Giants had left the Dodgers mentally and physically gassed.
“That’s the team over there that we need to go through,” Roberts said. “I know that I take it personal that we’re not the defending champs in the National League West. I know our guys do too. So this is a part of it. So it’s a big game.”
The rivalry has become increasingly strategic as well.
Roberts said Tuesday afternoon that the Dodgers weren’t ready to announce their starting pitcher for Wednesday night — in part because they wanted to see how Tuesday’s game played out after moving Urías up a day, but also because they were in no rush to let the Giants know who they would be facing.
“You can say it’s gamesmanship,” Roberts said, “but I don’t think that we’re just dead set on who we want to start tomorrow.”
The Giants, meanwhile, didn’t release their lineup for Tuesday’s game until 4:38 p.m., more than an hour and a half after the Dodgers.
“On the surface, it’s great quality baseball, a lot of talented baseball players on the field,” Roberts said. “But under the hood, there’s a lot of cat and mouse in trying to get matchup advantages.”
On Tuesday, the Dodgers found the edge.
Their rally in the second inning was sparked by a couple of left-hander-versus-left-hander walks by Max Muncy and Cody Bellinger against Rodón, who then threw a wild pitch to let them advance.
With two outs, Taylor fell behind 0-and-2 before laying off a high slider and lining a 98-mph fastball into right-center field to make it 2-0.
Urías avoided such mistakes. He struck out four. He didn’t walk any. The closest the Giants — who had several key players on the injured list and COVID IL — came to scoring was on a couple of long fly balls in the fifth inning, two of several deep drives from both teams that died in the outfield.
However, Urías’ night ended early, with Roberts pulling him after only 65 pitches. Roberts cited the quality of the Giants’ contact, and the continued caution the Dodgers are exercising with their pitchers after a lockout-shortened spring training, for the quick hook.
“We’re going to lean on him all summer. I just didn’t feel right now was the time,” Roberts said. “I’d rather err more on the cautious side than the aggressive side.”
Nonetheless, the Dodgers’ bullpen picked up the final nine outs, with Alex Vesia escaping a jam in the seventh, Daniel Hudson working around a walk in the eighth, and Kimbrel stranding two runners in the ninth.
The lineup, meanwhile, padded the lead in the eighth, when Hanser Alberto doubled before later scoring from third on a wild pitch by José Álvarez — who seemingly struggled to hear MLB’s new PitchCom sign system through his cap over the roar of the crowd.
“These series are why you play these games,” Taylor said. “Tonight, the crowd was awesome. It was just a great game. It’s exciting playing in this rivalry.”
And after an all-time race last year, another potentially memorable chapter in Dodgers-Giants history might be getting underway.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.