Pivotal series for Giants, Dodgers

A Giants-Dodgers series is always special, but the one starting at AT&T Park today has extra significance because this time, it’s the Dodgers who are strengthened and the Giants who are suffering.

When the Giants swept Los Angeles with three straight shutout victories in the last week of June, the Dodgers were a punchless outfit. Matt Kemp, probably the best player in the league, was on the disabled list, as was second baseman Mark Ellis. Andre Ethier, leading the league in RBIs at one point, injured himself during the series and also went on the DL.

Now, they’re all healthy, and the Dodgers have added another bat in Hanley Ramirez — and that also sounds a warning bell for the future. The McCourt ownership cut back on expenditures, but the new ownership will spend whatever it takes to bring a championship back to Dodger Stadium.

The Miami Marlins were expected to be postseason contenders, but everything has gone wrong since new manager Ozzie Guillen expressed his admiration for Fidel Castro. Now the Marlins are trying to unload expensive contracts, and Ramirez was a good place to start, with $7 million left on this year’s contract and$28 million in the next two years. That was much too rich for the A’s, but the Dodgers stepped up quickly to make the deal.

Ramirez has been having an off year, perhaps dragged down by the general malaise surrounding the Marlins, but at 28, he is in his athletic prime and should provide a big hitter to go with Kemp and Ethier in the middle of the Dodgers lineup.

Meanwhile, the Giants’ only true power hitter, Pablo Sandoval, has a strained hamstring after doing the splits at first base on a low throw. So maybe that constant chatter from part of the Giants fan base that Sandoval should be moved to first permanently will stop.

The Giants still have an advantage in starting pitching, even though Tim Lincecum took another step backward against the San Diego Padres on Wednesday. Matt Cain, who’s going tonight, has been dominating, with a perfect game on his résumé this year. Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong have been consistently good. Even Barry Zito has looked good in his past two starts, after seeming to slip back into his erratic pattern earlier in the month.

And the Giants have a three-game lead in the NL West. The Dodgers have to sweep to regain even a share of that spot.

There aren’t many good teams in the National League this year. The latest rankings by USA Today have nine of the 12 worst teams in baseball in the NL, including the bottom four: Cubs, Padres, Rockies and Astros.

The good teams? The Cincinnati Reds looked good when they were at AT&T before the All-Star break. The Washington Nationals, powered by their young stars, have played well, as have Pittsburgh and Atlanta.

And the Giants and Dodgers, both of whom now look like playoff teams.

That’s why this series is important, even though it’s still July. Going into the postseason as a division champion is always important, and the NL West is clearly a battle between these two teams. We’ll soon see if the edge has swung back to the Dodgers.

Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. Email him at glenndickey36@gmail.com.

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