Clayton Kershaw said his next start would be like any other. But as much as Kershaw tries to downplay the significance of the Dodgers' three-game series against the first-place San Francisco Giants, this is reality:
Manager Don Mattingly considered it important enough that he made certain Kershaw would pitch this weekend at AT&T Park.
Mattingly acknowledged that the Dodgers reset their rotation at the All-Star break with this series in mind. That's why Dan Haren, the least effective of the team's starters, pitched the first game after the break.
Zack Greinke will start the series opener Friday night, followed by Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu.
"It's not do-or-die, but it's definitely one we want to win," first baseman Adrian Gonzalez said. "Not, 'We want to win,' " he added, clarifying. "I think we need to win."
The Dodgers start the series 1 1/2 games behind the Giants in the National League West, and having lost seven of their 10 games with the Giants this season.
The Dodgers won't face the Giants again until September, when they face them six times in their last 16 regular-season games.
Unlike the Dodgers, the Giants didn't line up their three best starters to pitch this weekend. As a result, the Dodgers won't face Madison Bumgarner or Tim Hudson. They will also miss Matt Cain, who is on the disabled list with elbow inflammation.
"We lined it up so we would win the series," Gonzalez said. "Based on that itself, we have go out there and win two out of three."
Mattingly said there's an added emphasis to win the division because of changes in the playoff format introduced last season. The two wild-card teams face each other in a one-game playoff to determine which advances to a best-of-five division series.
"Everybody knows at this point you don't really want to be a wild card," Mattingly said. "If that's what you have to do to get in you'll take it, but it's Russian roulette. Anything could happen in one game. You could have a game where everything just goes wrong, then your season's over."
The Dodgers trailed the Giants by as many as 9 1/2 games this season. But the Giants lost 22 of 32 games leading up to the All-Star break, allowing the Dodgers to temporarily overtake them in the standings.
When play resumed, the Giants moved back in front. They have won five of seven games since the break, whereas the Dodgers have lost four of six.
How the teams have fared lately could be a reflection of their competition. The Giants beat up on the downtrodden Miami Marlins and Philadelphia Phillies; the Dodgers faced the playoff-contending St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates.
Another factor has been the Giants' bullpen, which has stabilized since Santiago Casilla replaced Sergio Romo as the closer almost a month ago.
And while Angel Pagan and Brandon Belt remained sidelined — Pagan with a back problem and Belt with a concussion — Buster Posey, Hunter Pence and Pablo Sandoval have started to hit. Michael Morse, who was signed over the winter, leads the team with 14 home runs.
"They're a good team," Kershaw said. "They've added Morse this year, who is a power threat. Sandoval's swinging the bat really well right now. Obviously, you have Posey and Pence. They have a lot of right-handed bats and drive the ball, which is always tough."
The Dodgers can also expect a hostile reception from the fans at AT&T Park.
"Great fans," Kershaw said. "It's always packed. They love their team and they let us know, so it's fun."
Still, Kershaw wouldn't concede this series was any more important than any other. "It's just another game right now," he said.
Mattingly shared the sentiment.
"I don't think we're going to walk into the series like, 'This is the series. If we win this series, we've got it,' " he said. "Nobody's going to walk out of this series thinking it's over one way or the other."
Greinke (11-6 win-loss record, 2.90 earned-run average) will face the Giants' Tim Lincecum (9-6, 3.65) Friday at AT&T Park at 7:15 p.m. On the air: TV: SportsNetLA. Radio: 570, 1020.
Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandezCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times