It's August and the Giants are down a half-game in the National League West to their arch-rival Los Angeles Dodgers. That makes the upcoming three-game series slightly important.
Let's preview said series. It's worth noting that Matt Kemp, early-season MVP leader, is currently on an 0-15 slump. You can almost guarantee he breaks that against the Giants, who he's smacked around this year.
Game 1: Monday August 20, 7:10 p.m. ET -- Madison Bumgarner (13-7, 2.97) vs. Clayton Kershaw (11-6, 2.90)
Remember last year when Kershaw and Tim Lincecum dueled so many times over the course of the season? This is 2012's version of that.
"Two good teams and both clubs know what's at stake," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "They had their way with us last series. We're going to have to play better."
Neither MadBum or Kershaw are at the front of the Cy Young race in the National League, but both have pitched impressively this season. Both are top 10 in innings pitched, Bumgarner is top 10 in wins, Kershaw is top 10 in ERA (and Bumgarner is 11), they're No. 2 and No. 3, respectively, in WHIP and they're both top 10 in strikeouts.
In any other season, they'd be heavily involved in the Cy race, but there's too much good pitching in the NL right now. But it's not too late -- Bumgarner's pitched quite well since the All-Star Break, posting a 2.25 ERA in his last seven starts with 51 strikeouts in 48 innings. He's typically a better pitcher at home, but in three starts (and four total games), Bumgarner has posted a 2.79 ERA over 19.1 innings at Dodger Stadium, though his nine strikeouts in that span is a little concerning.
Kershaw's been good since the break too, and you might recall the last time he faced the Giants at AT&T: a Sunday night, complete-game shutout, and since then, he's won four-straight starts with a 1.78 ERA.
"He just keeps coming on the attack all the time. That's what I like about Clayton," Don Mattingly said recently.
In other words, it's the worst possible time to catch Kershaw and the Giants have to do something other than what they did against him the last time around.
Game 2: Tuesday, August 21 -- Tim Lincecum (6-13, 5.45) vs. Joe Blanton (8-11, 4.96)
And, of course, this matchup is just hysterical on a number of different levels. Mainly because Lincecum has worse stats than Blanton.
But check out Lincecum's stats since the All-Star Break: 4-3 with a 3.30 ERA and 43 strikeouts in 43.2 innings pitched. Those are good (not very good or even particularly good, but good) numbers, and the last time out against the Dodgers, he went seven innings with no earned runs and eight strikeouts.
Blanton, since becoming a Dodger, is 1-2 with a 8.22 ERA and 12 strikeouts versus seven walks in 15.1 innings. And in his career, he hasn't been great against the Giants.
This is a must-win game for San Francisco, particularly if they falter in the first one.
Game 3: Wednesday August 22 -- Matt Cain (12-5, 2.90) vs. Chris Capuano (11-8, 3.14)
And then we realize why the Giants should be optimistic about this series. Their three best pitchers are going against their top division rival with first place on the line and, really, the matchups couldn't have lined up any better.
Capuano's been surprisingly good this season, but he's struggled a little since the All-Star Break, going 2-5 with a 3.69 ERA, although he's struck out 43 in 46.9 innings. (It shows how good he's been that putting up those numbers is considered a bad run for him.) Oddly, he hasn't pitched against the Giants this year.
There were some concerns about Cain, since he hasn't shut out a team since his perfect game on June 13 (and what does that say about how he's pitched this year), but those were likely answered with a strong recent start against the Padres, which very well could have been a complete-game shutout.
He's looked strong over his past two starts and a big game against the Dodgers -- who dealt him a no-decision on July 27 -- could very well be the difference between first and second place in the NL West come Thursday morning.