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San Francisco Becks Into NL West Title

September 28, 1997|MIKE DOWNEY

DENVER — It ain't over till the fat Giant pitches. In comes Rod Beck, out go the Dodgers.

You may be under a delusion that the Dodger season ended Saturday. No, not really. It came to an end Sept. 18, in the 10th inning, at The Park Formerly Known as Candlestick. That was the Dodger downfall. That's the day the Dodgers had roly-poly Rod right where they wanted him. Bases full, nobody out, tie score. Beck a nervous wreck. Home crowd verbally assaulting him. Giants in second place, and in big trouble.

That was the moment.

A hit, a walk, a balk, a squeeze, a sac fly, a wild pitch . . . anything to get a runner home from third, so the Dodgers can go home to L.A., in first place by two games.

Then, the back-breaker:

Todd Zeile takes a called third strike, Eddie Murray taps into a double play, the Giants survive in 12 innings, Beck wins the game and wins back his reputation.

Nine days later, the Giants take the division while the Dodgers watch the last out on TV, a strikeout by Beck.

And then, the knife in the back:

In front of a TV camera goes Barry Bonds of the Giants, to call the championship especially sweet, inasmuch as L.A. is--according to Bonds, twisting it in, breaking it off--"the better team."

One last Dodger dagger.

Difficult to fathom, how a single day--a single play--could tip an entire season. A homer by Jack Clark, by Joe Morgan, by Bobby Thomson . . . a single moment in space and time, freeze-framed.

This team died in the 10th inning, 9/18/97.

So far this season, the Dodgers have played 161 games, 1,468 innings. They won 15-inning and 14-inning games at New York. They scored 14 runs in a day game at Pittsburgh. They pounded out 10 runs against Tom Glavine and the Braves one night in May. They won a game June 20 at San Francisco with four runs in the 10th. Three weeks later, at home, they beat on the Giants all night, 11-0.

One day, L.A. looked up and the team's record was 60-49.

Lookin' good.

By the end of August, it was 78-59. Otis Nixon and Eric Young were atop the batting order, running so fast they should have passed a baton. The 3-4-5-6 hitters didn't turn into a murderer's row, but they definitely came carrying dangerous weapons. Darren Lewis checked in Aug. 28 to play left. Greg Gagne was about to go 54 games at shortstop with only four errors.

Where did the Dodgers go wrong?

Many places. For one thing, Manager Bill Russell no longer used Todd Hollandsworth, Brett Butler or Wilton Guerrero, which meant after Nixon would bat leadoff, the Dodgers would send eight right-handed batters to the plate, day after day, night after night.

Right-handers handled them. Dan Patterson of Texas (Sept. 3, 5-2). Kevin Brown of Florida (Sept. 8, 8-4). John Smoltz of Atlanta (Sept. 9, 4-3). Shane Reynolds of Houston (Sept. 12, 10-3). Darryl Kile of Houston (Sept. 13, 5-1). Pedro Astacio of Colorado (Sept 19, 6-4). Jamey Wright of Colorado (Sept. 20, 2-1). Joey Hamilton of San Diego (Sept. 24, 4-1).

Not a September to remember.

Dusty Baker's Giants say their title was "Dustiny." That must mean the Dodgers turned to Rustiny. But it wasn't any one thing that Russell did, or didn't do. His team did win 88 games. That's more than Houston did. That's more than Cleveland did. And those teams took their divisions.

Unfortunately, it took the Dodgers months to settle at three key positions--left, center and second. Out of the bullpen, Todd Worrell got chance after chance. Murray, let go by the Angels because of a slow bat, became the Dodger designated pinch-hitter. Russell stuck with veterans everywhere. He wouldn't bench Gagne, even in a horrendous slump. He gave up on Guerrero, whose batting average left-handed happens to be .316.

As for the phenom from the farm, Paul Konerko, who knows? Too young? Too inexperienced? Hey, so was Andruw Jones, the youngest player in baseball, a hero for Atlanta in the 1996 World Series.

What do the Dodgers do now?

We can think of a few things:

(1) They make Darren Dreifort the closer.

(2) They call Kenny Lofton's agent, to see if the center fielder is happy in Atlanta.

(3) They go after Pedro Martinez, the Montreal Expo pitcher.

(4) They let Gagne retire and look for a shortstop. Ozzie Guillen of the White Sox is available, for one.

(5) They put Konerko someplace. Scouts say he's a natural first baseman, not a third baseman. That means:

(6) They protect Zeile in the expansion draft. And:

(7) They put Eric Karros on the market. It isn't easy. He's a valuable property. But that's why. Either you use Karros to fill a need, or you go for a great left-handed stick in the lineup (Mo Vaughn? Mark Grace?) at first base, which leaves Konerko odd man out.

Not all Dodger fans are screaming for blood.

But most can see the need for some new blood.

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