CHICAGO — Gesticulating furiously and reaching full conversational stride, Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda worked the room as only he can. It was part revivalist and part Vegas lounge lizard.
His message was simple and to the point, and he repeated it at least five times in the clubhouse to an assemblage of Dodger players celebrating unprecedented success Sunday after a five-game series sweep over the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field.
"What a . . . team," Lasorda shouted. "What a . . . team."
Lasorda's post-game mantra was perhaps the best--or, at least, the most concise--summation of a major show of Dodger domination. Another doubleheader sweep of the Cubs pushed the Dodgers a season-high 7 games ahead of the second-place San Francisco Giants in the National League West.
Concluding the first segment of their longest trip of the season, the Dodgers beat the Cubs, 4-1, in the first game on a three-run home run by Franklin Stubbs and solid pitching from starter Tim Belcher and reliever Alejandro Pena. In the second game, the Dodgers used aggressive baserunning, timely hitting and more good pitching for a 5-2 win.
Only a week ago, the Dodgers broke for the All-Star game only 2 1/2 games ahead of the Giants after three straight losses to Pittsburgh at Dodger Stadium. They were warily heading into this 16-day, 14-game trip, hoping to keep the lead.
What they have done instead is expand it by 4 1/2 games in four days. Granted, the Dodger-Cub series was seemingly longer-running than some television series, but the Dodgers received only rave reviews. The Dodgers were so optimistic, in fact, that they were sort of sad to see it end.
"Big, big games for us," said second baseman Steve Sax, who drove in the go-ahead run in the seventh inning of the second game and had four hits for the day. "It's like a bubbling-over effect. We don't mind the doubleheaders. This really spurred a lot (of confidence) for our club."
Veteran catcher Rick Dempsey, who has been in a pennant race or two during his 16-year major league career, warned the Dodgers (53-36) about being content with a 7-game lead in July. But he also isn't so jaded as to begrudge his teammates the importance of the 5-game series sweep. "One thing I learned in Baltimore, you don't even really think about these things until you are 20 games above .500," Dempsey said. "Then, you can bother to look at the scoreboard and start thinking ahead.
"But to win five on the road in Chicago, it gives us tremendous momentum going on to St. Louis for the next series. If we keep this up, we can put a lot of distance between ourselves and the rest of the division. Plus, it gives you a lot of confidence."
Does it have the opposite effect on the Giants? Or the Houston Astros, 8 games behind in third place?
"Sure, they're probably worried," Dempsey said. "We're seven up. That's a lot, even this early. What we got to do is stay away from the long losing streak and we'll be OK."
Sunday's victories were two more examples why the Dodgers are in first place and pulling away from the pack. They have relied on various contributors, especially from the bullpen and the bench.
In the first game, Belcher (6-4) made his first start since June 18 after a successful stint in the bullpen and allowed only a run in six innings. Pena, making his third appearance in four days, pitched three scoreless innings for his eighth save. Pena has pitched 21 straight innings without allowing an earned run.
"The more I pitch, the stronger I feel," Pena said. "I feel pretty good right now."
Pena's save opportunity was set up by Stubbs' pinch-hit, three-run home run to left field off loser Jeff Pico. That turned a 1-1 tie into a 4-1 Dodger lead. It was Stubbs' fifth home run, second as a pinch-hitter.
In the second game, which featured starting lineups of mostly reserves, surprise starter Shawn Hillegas pitched five innings and gave up two runs in the first. But Mike Davis, getting his first start since June 18, hit a two-run home run in the second to tie it, 2-2.
Relievers Brian Holton and Tim Crews combined for three scoreless innings before closer Jay Howell finished off the series sweep by retiring the side in the ninth inning for his 10th save. Holton, who had been listed as the starter as the second game, got the win, his fifth.
Even though he did not get a hit, Jose Gonzalez's running ability played a big role in the Dodgers' late-inning scoring in the second game. Gonzalez hit a liner to center field with two out and nobody on base in the seventh, but the Cubs' Mitch Webster misplayed the ball and Gonzalez used his speed to advance to third base on the error. He scored on Sax's single for a 3-2 Dodger lead.
In the ninth, Gonzalez struck out but went to first on reliever Frank DiPino's wild pitch. When Sax bunted for a hit, Gonzalez alertly took third when the Cubs left the base uncovered. One out later, Jeff Hamilton's pinch-hit single scored both runners for two insurance runs.