Exhibit A for the kind of race this is appeared in the opening game of the Padres-Dodgers series on Tuesday night. With possession of first place in the balance, the Padres won 1-0, in a game that featured a grand total of seven hits. And it featured the return to action of Dodgers starter Jason Schmidt, out since April 14 with shoulder bursitis.
Schmidt was not involved in the decision, but still, his return could only be described as completely successful. He threw six innings of one-hit, shutout ball. The Dodgers had hoped for 80-90 pitches from Schmidt. He complied, with 86 pitches, 55 for strikes. It was a remarkable performance from a pitcher who had been sidelined for nearly two months.
"We were pleased with everything about his game," Dodgers manager Grady Little said. "It was just a shame that we couldn't score a couple of runs for him."
When Schmidt was asked if anything about this comeback start could have been better, he smiled slightly and replied: "I suppose a nine-inning shutout and a no-hitter would have been better."
But the central point is that Schmidt, signed for $47 million over three years to be a bulwark of the Los Angeles rotation, looked like he could fill that role. The Dodgers fell out of first place with this loss, but there was still something to be said for the knowledge that they could have Schmidt on the mound every fifth game.
"There's a lot to be said for it," Little said. "If there's such a thing as a moral victory, that's what happened out there tonight for the LA Dodgers. We'll reap the benefits of that as the season goes on. There's a lot of baseball left to go."
Schmidt's return might mean that the balance of pitching in the NL West could be tilted in favor of the Dodgers. But for the moment, first place, not only in the ERA rankings, but in the standings, belonged to the Padres.
The Padres' strength was underscored by Tuesday night's result. They could win a game in which they only got two hits. Russell Branyan, pinch-hitting in the eighth inning, was hit by a pitch and then stole his first base of the season, putting himself in a position to score on Marcus Giles' single.
Before the game, both Padres manager Bud Black and general manager Kevin Towers had been asked about the perceived need to obtain another hitter in the lineup. The club has a substantial run producer, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, but this is often a difficult solo act. The Padres ranked 11th in the NL in runs scored. In a way, being in first place in the division, while being 11th in runs scored in the league, is simply another tribute to how effective San Diego's pitching has been.
"It would be nice to have another hitter in the order that every other club feared," Towers said. "But I don't spend a lot of time thinking about that, because we are who we are."
Who the Padres are is a team that, like many teams, was unable to compete financially in the offseason for extremely high-priced hitting talent. The Padres decided instead to fortify their pitching depth. If this was Plan B, it was better than Plan A. The Padres are in first place and have the National League's second-best record, because they have the kind of pitching depth that many other teams can only dream of or envy.
It is why they have won. And it is not as though they have been pitching above their level. Leading the Major Leagues in team ERA is a lofty position, but the Padres are not pitching over their heads.
"We like to think that our team is one that is very consistent in pitching, both in the rotation and in the bullpen," Black said. "I think we expected to pitch well this season and as long as we stay healthy, we feel as though we can continue this, because we have guys who are on board with what we're trying to do, as far as pitch execution, listening to the scouting reports, pitching to their strengths."
Ah, pitching to their strengths. Pitching is the strength in this division. The Dodgers could take solace even in defeat Tuesday night, because as Little said, the return of a healthy Schmidt was a moral victory for them. If they had done a commendable job without him, think how much better they could be with him taking his regular turn.
And the Padres found first place, winning a game in which they had only two hits. At the moment, the balance of power is passé in the NL West. The balance of pitching is front and center and in command.