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Swoon Song

Despite a Powerful Lineup, the Dodgers Can't Seem to Win the Important Games


It would be understandable if the Dodgers had an aversion to brooms. Over the last three seasons, they have played five crucial series.

And been swept out of every one of them.

Fourteen big games. Fourteen big losses.

This year, the Dodgers are in danger of being swept out of the playoffs by a collapse that has spread over much of September. On August 31, they led the San Francisco Giants by two and one-half games in the National League West. Since then, they have gone 6-12 to drop five games in the standings.

Who do you blame?

The pitching staff might be a good place to start. The team ERA for its starters in September is 5.63 after months of 2.79 (July) and 3.63 (August). The relief pitching hasn't been much better. The bullpen has a collective ERA of 5.18 in September after not going as high as 4.00 for any previous month.

Is this a team that simply can't handle pressure, a team that chokes?

To former manager Sparky Anderson, the ugliest word in the English language for a ballplayer is choke.

"I don't believe there is such a thing," he said. "They put so much pressure on themselves, but, if they didn't, they would not be worth a damn.

"They are trying so hard right now that they can't stop the pressure. It's not like a water faucet that you can turn on and off. You never can escape it. If you do, you'd better stop playing this game.

"I was so tight when I managed in games like that that I took 30 [stomach pills] in a game. Thirty. Pressure is not unusual. It's natural. If you say a team can't take the pressure, how did they get this far?"

The Dodgers have been accused of letting pressure get to them before. They were swept out of the 1995 playoffs by the Cincinnati Reds in the first round. They were swept by the San Diego Padres in the three-game series that ended the 1996 regular season, costing them a division title. The Dodgers were then swept out of the playoffs in the first round by the Atlanta Braves.

This year, they were swept by the San Francisco Giants and the Colorado Rockies in the last two crucial series.

So is there a common thread in these games, some basic flaw in this team that causes it to fail in the clutch?

Two long-time baseball figures, both Southern California residents, are able to take an objective point of view. Between them, Anderson and Gene Mauch managed 7,970 major league games over a combined 52 years before retiring. Said Mauch, "I think talking about clutch players is the silliest thing in the world. All you want is a player who plays at his normal level, whether it's the second inning or the tenth inning."

But are there some players out there who don't want to be in the middle of a pennant race, who can't take the pressure?

"If they didn't want to be there in April for me," Anderson said, "they didn't get a chance in September."

Anderson says he can see the tension when he watches the Dodgers bat.

"They are taking pitches, looking for the perfect pitch up there," he said, "and when they get it, they can't pull the trigger."

Dodger shortstop Greg Gagne has been struggling more than most, locked in a slump that has seen him go zero for 19 before a bruised tendon in his forearm sidelined him.

"I know Gagne," Mauch said. "He wants to do well so bad, he's dying. He's got to get reckless up there. He's just got to let her fly."

Anderson says the fact this race is still undecided is not surprising.

"The hardest thing in the world is to lock the door," he said. "Sometimes, the key just doesn't fit. And that goes for the Giants and the Dodgers.

"Dusty [Baker, Giant manager] is scared to death that he can't get the door locked. I saw where Dusty had to go to the hospital the other day because of stomach pains. That's not what it was. It was stress. [Dodger Manager] Billy Russell also has to be feeling the pain.

"But this thing is not over yet. The Dodgers could win two in a row. . . . Then all these fans will be back on the bandwagon. I tell them, 'Don't jump off'.

"Yes, the Giants have the advantage. You would have to be a moron not to think that. But the key don't fit just yet."

Despite the deficit, Mauch favors the Dodgers at this point.

"I think this team [the Dodgers] has more talent than the other team [the Giants]," he said. "I like the center fielder [Otis Nixon]. I like his attitude. He is something special. He can win games for you without his bat. I like the right fielder [Raul Mondesi]. I like his attitude. I like their chances. They've done well in Colorado [where the Dodgers must play four games to close out the regular season].

"But I don't know what makes the Dodgers tick. They know. Billy knows. But I'll tell you, they'd better hear that tick themselves pretty soon."

Anderson doesn't buy the theory that the burden for turning this thing around rests with Russell, that he must shed his stoic nature and be more explosive like his predecessor, Tommy Lasorda.

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