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Ross Newhan ON BASEBALL

Their Days Are Numbered

Dodgers hit stride but are running out of time

September 16, 2003|Ross Newhan

A six-week stretch in which their 26-13 record is the National League's best illustrates that the Dodgers have more good things going for them now than at any time in six months.

The catalog is larger, but citing only the ongoing dominance of the rotation and bullpen, the offensive revival of Shawn Green and Adrian Beltre, the middle-infield defense of Cesar Izturis and Alex Cora and the wider contributions of the lineup and bench, the Dodgers suddenly have the look of a formidable October team.

Unfortunately, their calendar may end with September -- and that, of course, is not such a good thing.

Having confronted and conquered (at least temporarily) the dreaded Curse of the Padres, the Dodgers have 14 games remaining, with six at home against Arizona and San Francisco, starting tonight.

If there is an eternity left, as Manager Jim Tracy suggests, he understands that the Dodgers need help and is banking on wild-card leader Florida and Philadelphia to nullify each other while playing six times in the final two weeks.

The Marlins and Phillies begin a three-game series in Philadelphia tonight, after which the Marlins have to play four games in Atlanta while the Phillies play three at home with Cincinnati.

The Dodgers are 2 1/2 games behind Florida and one game behind Philadelphia, and the difficulty in chasing a two-headed monster can be measured by the following:

They have gained only a half-game despite winning eight of their last 10 and they have actually lost a game in the wild-card standings despite winning 13 of their last 17.

If the Marlins win only seven of their last 13, the Dodgers will have to win 11 of 14 to finish one game ahead with 91 wins, and that doesn't account for the Phillies.

Tracy wouldn't put a specific number on it, but he noted that the Dodgers are now even with Philadelphia in the loss column ("an important issue," he said), and added:

"All three teams have work to do, but because of the number of games [Florida and Philadelphia] have with each other, and the four games that the Marlins still have to deal with in Atlanta, it's completely doable.

"We have to keep playing good baseball like we have for a while now, but it's out there for us, it's doable."

The Dodgers are indeed playing better baseball, and at this point there's no sense in reviewing the oft-chronicled mistakes and missed opportunities -- upstairs and down.

It is reasonable to be cautious regarding a team that has scored one run or fewer in 35 games, but the Dodgers are in striking distance of a playoff berth starting the final two weeks. Here's a closer look at a few of those good things that have enhanced their play:

Pitching

At a point in the season when many staffs are disintegrating from the workload, Jim Colborn's is getting stronger.

Hideo Nomo and Kazuhisa Ishii have returned effectively from physical setbacks, the rotation is lined up to start on three days' rest if necessary, the staff earned-run average of 3.04 is almost preposterous in an offensive era and a bullpen anchored by you-know-who undoubtedly has the Marlins and Phillies salivating in envy.

"It's safe to say that our bullpen has consistently and effectively shortened the game," Tracy said.

"At this point in the season, with the pressure of the race and the possibility of starters being removed earlier, that's a huge advantage."

Green and Beltre

Responding to his ailing shoulder, Green opted to have a cortisone injection for the first time in his career Sept. 3 and has since hit .325 with five home runs and 14 runs batted in. The injection eased the pain and was the right decision at the right time, Green admitted.

"What I've seen of Shawn Green the last week or so, he looks exactly like the offensive player who was here in 2001 and 2002," said Tracy, who is equally enthused about the enigmatic Beltre.

The third baseman has 14 homers since the All-Star break and is batting .431 in the last 12 games.

Although hitless Sunday, he kept his focus, making two sensational fielding plays to frustrate the Padres.

"There hasn't been a single instance when he's taken his bat on the field with him, and that's just another indication of his growth as a young player," Tracy said.

Izturis and Cora

With little margin for error behind a pitching staff encumbered for most of the season by limited run support, the shortstop and second baseman have performed magically. The manager, of course, is biased, but maybe justifiably so.

"I don't think it's going out on a limb to say they're the best middle-infield combination in the league and both deserving of Gold Gloves," Tracy said. "It's also like having two coaches in the middle of the infield. Their instincts are mind-boggling."

It's the little things, and the Dodgers have gotten better at it, as in the case of pitchers holding runners and Paul LoDuca leading the league in throwing out potential base stealers.

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