By Don Wanlass
Where do we start? Is it with the two teams who couldn’t stop their opponents late in the game when it mattered the most? Or the team that suddenly finds itself with a quarterback controversy nobody saw coming?
How about the team with a ho-hum victory in game two that spoke volumes. Or should we focus on a down-to-the-wire pennant race involving one of the best rivalries in all of sports?
A tough decision but we’ll start with the Dodgers-Giants pennant race, which could last all the way past Oct. 3, which is the last day of the regular season.
Yes, it is highly likely that the Dodgers and Giants could end the regular baseball season tied for first in the National League Western Division, which would force a one-game playoff Oct. 4 in San Francisco.
San Francisco would host the playoff by virtue of winning the season series against the Dodgers, 10-9. Yes, the two teams were practically even during the 19 games they played against each other, too.
Since Aug. 1, the two teams have been neck and neck. The Dodgers have a slightly better record in that period, 32-11 against 31-14.
Still, the Dodgers trail the Giants by a game in the standings with 11 games remaining.
The Dodgers have the harder remaining schedule. The Giants only face division rivals San Diego, Colorado and Arizona in their last 11 games.
The Dodgers have one more with Colorado, three more with Arizona, three with San Diego and then close the season with a three-game series at Dodger Stadium against the Central Division leading Milwaukee Brewers, a much more formidable opponent than the Padres, Rockies or Diamondbacks.
The Brewers, though, will have already clinched the division title by then and hopefully will be resting their regulars and trying to get their pitching rotation lined up for the playoffs.
Still, the Dodgers have a tougher final stretch of the season than the Giants.
Finishing second in the West will not mean the Dodgers can’t repeat as World Series champions. It just means the road to the series will be a rougher ride than last year and no ride to the World Series is ever easy.
The Dodgers still have the best four-man starting rotation in baseball, especially when you consider that last year’s ace, Clayton Kershaw, is now the fourth best starter.
If Max Scherzer has to start the wild card game, the Dodgers can still start the divisional series round with Walker Buehler, Julio Urias, Scherzer and Kershaw. It will be hard to beat that rotation three games out of five.
However the Dodgers manage to get to the postseason, watch Albert Pujols deliver at least one clutch hit once they get there.
Tio Albert, as his teammates call him, had the game-winning run batted in Sept. 21 in the 10th inning of a 5-4 win over the Rockies. Pujols didn’t try to see how far he could hit the ball in that situation. He calmly bounced the ball up the middle to drive home Gavin Lux from second base.
Pujols has stayed within himself since coming over from the Angels in May. He knows he was brought in by management as much for his leadership skills as his baseball prowess these days.
Since joining the Dodgers, Pujols is hitting .261 with 12 home runs and 38 RBI. Needless to say, he would still be in Anaheim if he had put up those numbers with the Angels. Coming to a pennant contender has rejuvenated Pujols, too.
He also realizes what his role with the Dodgers is and doesn’t try to do more than he is capable of doing at 41 years old.
That experience will pay dividends for the Dodgers in the postseason, mark my words.
WHO’S UNDER CENTER: Barring injury, there was no way anyone would have suspected Kedon Slovis would not be the starting quarterback at USC all season on his way to the National Football League next year.
Then Slovis got knocked out of the Sept. 18 game with Washington State in the first series and the world met Jaxson Dart. All Dart did was shatter USC records for passing yardage by a freshman quarterback making his debut while leading the Trojans to a come-from-behind 45-14 victory.
Dart, who was the U.S. High School Player of the Year last year, is from Utah. He had impressed the USC staff during training camp, but no one expected 30 completions in 46 attempts for 391 yards and four touchdowns.
That leaves interim head coach Donte Williams with a dilemma. Who does he start at quarterback the rest of the season?
Dart offers the Trojans’ offense mobility at the quarterback position they lack with Slovis. He plays with more energy than Slovis.
That being said, Slovis has looked liked a potential NFL quarterback since he replaced JT Daniels due to an injury early in the 2019 season. When Daniels’ injured knee healed, he transferred to Georgia.
Williams may not have to make a decision this week as the Trojans prepare for Oregon State at the Coliseum Sept. 25.
Dart hurt his knee at the end of the first half. He still managed to lead the Trojans to 45 points after the injury, but he wasn’t able to practice Sept. 21 when the Trojans began preparations for Oregon State and Slovis was recovered from his neck injury to handle all the first-team snaps.
It may not be a full-blown quarterback controversy now, but if Slovis gets off to a slow start against Colorado Oct. 2 or Utah Oct. 9, Williams will face the first real challenge of his young coaching career.
TOUGH LOSSES: The UCLA Bruins and Los Angeles Chargers lost games the same way last weekend. They couldn’t stop their opponent in the last minutes of the game.
UCLA had clawed back from a 26-17 deficit entering the fourth quarter to lead 37-33 with 54 seconds left in the game and Fresno State starting at its own 25-yard line.
It took the Bulldogs six plays and 40 seconds to drive those 75 yards, quarterback Jake Haener hitting Jalen Cropper for the winning touchdown.
“We have to make plays when it’s our turn,” UCLA head coach Chip Kelly told reporters after the game. “We didn’t.
“You would look at it and go, ‘75 yards, that’s a tough task for them,’ but they made more plays then we did and that’s why we ended up in the ‘L’ column and they ended up in the ‘W’ column,” Kelly added.
The loss put a damper on the optimism that had gripped Westwood after opening wins against Hawaii and LSU, but Fresno State is a good team, battling Oregon down to the wire before losing 31-24 Sept. 4.
Head coach Jeff Tedford, who played at Warren High in Downey and Cerritos College before going on to start at Fresno State in 1981 and ’82, has rebuilt the Bulldogs into a team capable of beating some Pac 12 teams, and the Bruins learned that the hard way.
UCLA’s problems started with the running game. Texas transfer Zack Charbonnet never got going. After gaining over 100 yards against both Hawaii and LSU, he was limited to 19 yards in six carries against Fresno State. Brittain Brown was limited to 23 yards in nine carries.
Only quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson had success gaining yards on the ground. He finished with 67 yards on 13 carries to go with his 278 yards on 14 of 24 passing.
But the Bruins gave up 569 total yards and 32 first down to Fresno State, which kept the defense on the field too long.
In the end, that proved to be the difference, as the Bruins had nothing left to even slow the Bulldogs on the final drive.
Like the Bruins, the Chargers have gotten used to losing close games at the end.
Their loss to the Dallas Cowboys Sept. 19 came on the last play of the game as former Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein kicked a 56-yard field goal as time ran out to give the Cowboys a 20-17 win.
While the Fresno State winning drive was quick, the Cowboys were methodical. They held the ball for the last four minutes, going 49 yards in 11 plays to set up Zuerlein’s field goal.
The game was even throughout. The Cowboys ran up 419 yards of total offense, the Chargers had 408. The Chargers had 24 first downs, the Cowboys had 25.
The Cowboys held the ball for 29:03, the Chargers had it for 30:57.
The Cowboys had the ball last and sometimes it’s just that simple in the NFL.
NARROW VICTORY: The Rams 27-24 win over the Indianapolis Colts Sept. 19 also was typical of the NFL. The Rams led most of the way but the Colts made it close in the end.
Actually, the Colts lost the game early, turning the ball over twice inside the 10 yard line at the end of long drives.
On the game’s opening drive, the Colts had a first-and-goal at the 2-yard line and couldn’t score. Quarterback Carson Wentz was sacked on fourth-and-goal from the 1. Later in the first half, the Colts were again knocking at the door at the 3-yard line when Wentz tried a shovel pass that went right to Rams linebacker Troy Reeder.
If the Colts score two field goals on those two drives, they win.
The Rams new quarterback Matthew Stafford wasn’t quite as spectacular as he was in the opener, but he was still very good. He completed 19 of 30 passes for 278 yards and two touchdowns with one interception.
Wide receiver Cooper Kupp and Stafford are already working on the same page. They teamed up for nine passes for 163 yards and two touchdowns and Stafford looked for Kupp on key plays.
The Rams moved the ball on the ground better this week, with Darrell Henderson and Sony Michel combining for 99 yards on 23 carries.
The Rams’ special teams let the Colts back in the game in the second half when a bad snap on a punt hit the blocking back and was recovered in the end zone by the Colts for a touchdown.
That gave the Colts a brief lead, 21-17 with 14:12 to go in the game, but the Rams responded by going 58 yards in 9 plays with Stafford and Kupp connecting on a 10-yard scoring play with 12 minutes to play to regain the lead.
After the Colts tied the game at 24 with a field goal, the Rams again responded, going 55 yards in 12 plays to set up Matt Gay with a 38-yard filed goal with slightly more than two minutes left to play.
An interception by Jalen Ramsey sealed the win.