Pennant fever was still alive at Dodger Stadium Sunday. Problem was, the Dodgers were nothing more than accessories, as they lost, 4-3, to the suddenly contending Cincinnati Reds.
The Reds scored two runs in the ninth inning off reliever Tom Niedenfuer to beat the Dodgers, those gracious hosts, who may have helped provide some late-season suspense to an otherwise dull divisional race.
Sunday's victory, the Reds' third in a row, placed them just seven games behind the Houston Astros, who lost again to the San Diego Padres.
"(The Reds) got a chance, they're alive," Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda said.
Inadvertently breathing life into the race were the Dodgers, who did what they could to make things difficult for the Reds. But there they were, struggling once more on offense, fielding a starting lineup that included Ralph Bryant in right, Len Matuszek in left, Franklin Stubbs in center, Dave Anderson at short and Jeff Hamilton at third, and allowing a one-run, ninth-inning lead turn into a one-run defeat.
This time, the Dodgers produced only four hits, one less than the day before, when they were victims of a shutout. Steve Sax contributed a first-inning double, which later became a run when Matuszek singled to right. And Bryant, who had walked earlier in the inning, scored on a groundout to first by Greg Brock.
Sax, who finished with one hit after four at-bats, has a 13-game hitting streak and a .328 average, which puts him just two points behind National League leader Tony Gwynn of the Padres. Montreal's Tim Raines, the only other challenger for the batting title, went 0 for 4 Sunday to drop to .326.
Sax may say he's not particularly concerned about his number of hits, but you'd never know it by his final at-bat. After a pop-up to begin the eighth inning, Sax slammed his bat to the ground as he jogged toward first and later found Lasorda waiting for him when he returned to the dugout.
The remainder of the Dodger hits were provided by Stubbs, who doubled with one out in the fourth (he was stranded there), and pitcher Rick Honeycutt, who singled to begin the fifth and later scored on a sacrifice fly by Bryant.
That was it as Red starter Ted Power, once property of the Dodgers, stayed six innings and then watched as relievers Ron Robinson and John Franco, another former Dodger minor leaguer, held the Dodgers hitless and without a base runner in the final three innings.
"Watching Ted and Franco pitching against the Dodgers, they get revved extra hard because they're ex-Dodgers," Red Manager Pete Rose said. "They try to do too much instead of getting in a nice rhythm."
Is that so? Of the four Dodger hits, two came in the first inning. And Franco only disposed of three pinch-hitters in the ninth: Enos Cabell, who flied to center; Pedro Guerrero, who grounded weakly to short, and Bill Madlock, who popped to left to end the game.
Now the Reds find themselves with a chance to catch the Astros. They have 19 games to do it and play three games with Houston, beginning Tuesday, at Cincinnati.
"I hope we play like we're playing, and (the Astros) play like they're playing," Rose said. "You can't tell. You get the first game against (Astro starter Bob) Knepper and it might be fun. I'd still like to be in their position."
So would the Dodgers, who were victims Sunday of playing the percentages. Lasorda pulled Honeycutt, who led, 3-1, after six innings. He brought in Ken Howell, who promptly allowed a leadoff single to Dave Concepcion in the seventh. Then came a fielding error by Sax, which put Concepcion on third, followed soon thereafter by a bungled double-play attempt that allowed a Red run.
Powell left after the eighth inning, complaining of stomach pains. The pains were later diagnosed as an abdominal strain on his left side.
In came Niedenfuer for his third appearance in as many days. Sure enough, Concepcion singled past Greg Brock, who was guarding the first-base line. After Ron Oester struck out, Barry Larkin singled to left, moving Concepcion to third, and later stole second. Buddy Bell followed with a sacrifice fly, which scored Concepcion and allowed Larkin to go to third.
Dave Parker and his 106 RBIs were on deck. Lasorda told Niedenfuer to issue an intentional walk. So done, leaving Niedenfuer to face Eric Davis.
"I don't think Eric had gotten a hit off me before, maybe one," Niedenfuer said. "Davis is having a great year, but the main guy in their lineup is still Parker in that situation. I've done pretty well against Davis in the past."
On the first pitch, Davis lined a ground ball single past Hamilton, who also was guarding the line. That scored Larkin and the Reds had their win half an inning later.
"He hit it good, but it wasn't like he hit a double to the alley," Niedenfuer said. "It's been that way a lot. Today, they hit one on each side of the guys."
Reliever Ken Howell, suffering from an abdominal strain, was given medication after Sunday's game. He said he first noticed the pain shortly before the game began. He alerted Tom Lasorda of his condition after the eighth inning. "It's just the principal of the thing," he said. "They don't want you to go out there, and (then) something else goes wrong and it gets real serious." . . . Tom Niedenfuer, his elbow and shoulder packed in ice after the game, said his arm "feels pretty good." Any pain? "Not really," he said. "It's good enough." . . . Would Red Manager Pete Rose walk Dave Parker to face Eric Davis, who has 26 homers and 68 RBIs? "Niedenfuer, he gets them out," he said. "You've got to play the percentages." . . . Left fielder Len Matuszek allowed a Tony Perez line drive to sail over his glove in the second, but he made up for the mistake by robbing Davis of a home run in the fourth.