Three games, Padres vs. Dodgers, starting tonight, for the National League West lead. Unless, of course, the Diamondbacks sweep the Giants. Then it’s a battle for second place. Whatever. It’s a big series, and if you’re headed to Petco, expect large crowds, and lots of visitors from the north.

Much is being made about the similarities between the Southern California teams. I’d call them “rivals,” but even that’s being debated. The bulk of the discussion is about pitching. Pitching and more pitching. The raving about the San Diego staff’s prowess hasn’t stopped since Opening Day, but it’s not as if Los Angeles has a bunch of weak-armed wusses. These guys deal.

Jason Schmidt makes his first start in seven weeks tonight, facing off against Chris Young. The Dodgers feel like getting Schmidt back now, after a bout of bursitis and a severely-reduced speed gun rating, is like making a trade just in time for an important series. And with goofy left-hander Mark Hendrickson being bounced from the rotation in favor of Schmidt, it’s addition by subtraction in addition to addition by addition. Or something.

Like the Padres, the Dodgers have issues offensively, but manage to score just enough to get by. And, like the Padres, the Dodgers are third base-challenged. L.A. doesn’t play the patience game the Padres do, and especially not at third base, which is why they’ve essentially had just two real third basemen — Ron Cey and Adrian Beltre — in 50 years of baseball on the West Coast.

Currently at the hot corner is Tony Abreu, a switch-hitter who’s contributed significantly with the bat in just a couple of weeks in the majors, but isn’t a natural third baseman. So be careful if you’re sitting in first few rows beyond first base. Or bring protection.

Jeff Kent is slumping a bit, Rafael Furcal is limping around at short but never comes out of the lineup, Nomar Garciaparra hits with runners in scoring position, and Luis Gonzalez is going strong at the advanced age of 39. Jonathan Broxton throws 100 miles per hour and is closing games for a few days while Takaski Saito sits with a sore hammy.

And then there’s the Dodgers young leader and team MVP, Russell Martin. Pads assistant general manager Paul DePodesta knows all about Martin from his days as Dodgers personnel man. It’s doubtful Depo can explain his preference for Dioner Navarro over Martin when all he had to do was actually watch the two catchers play. But the game is full of mysteries. Perhaps he’ll pay closer attention this week. You should too.

— HOWARD COLE

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