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Ross Newhan / ON BASEBALL

A Throwback Staff Makes Pitch at History

September 17, 2003|Ross Newhan

A pitching staff that has carried the Dodgers into the final hours of the wild-card race is also challenging history.

Nothing is more important than the standings, but there are some magic numbers being fashioned on the mound as well.

Biased but accurate, pitching coach Jim Colborn says of the performance through 150 games:

"It's stupendous. These guys are pitching with a consistency seldom seen."

Seldom seen?

"Well," said Vin Scully, "it's the most impressive staff I've ever seen."

Ever seen?

Think about that.

The peerless Scully is in his 54th year as the Dodger broadcaster. He bridges a continent, along with those five decades.

He scratched the scrapbook of his mind and said:

"We've had bursts of brilliance going back to Don Newcombe and Carl Erskine through Koufax and Drysdale and some others, but we've never had so many good pitchers on one staff, and they all complement each other so well."

So, Scully said, it's the best Dodger staff he's seen and probably the best staff, period, and certainly a formidable weapon in October if the Dodgers get that far "and certainly I'm not saying anything more than what the scouts are."

The scouts are saying that in a five- and seven-game series the Dodgers could be tough to beat, but the road to October became tougher Tuesday night.

Aware that Philadelphia had routed wild card-leading Florida in the opener of their three-game series, the Dodgers failed to take advantage.

They wasted reliable pitching again in suffering a critical loss to Curt Schilling and the Arizona Diamondbacks, 3-2.

Manager Jim Tracy was ejected for arguing a correct call at a time in the race when it is important for him to stay in the game and the Dodgers remained 2 1/2 games behind the Marlins in the wild-card standings.

Now, however, they are two back of the Phillies and have been caught in a tie for third by the Chicago Cubs.

Although starter Kazuhisa Ishii wasn't sharp, he and three successors did little to remove the historic luster from what the pitching staff is compiling.

Consider:

* With a 3.04 earned-run average in this offensive era, the Dodgers could become the first team since the 1989 Dodgers to fashion an ERA under 3.00.

* With an ERA differential of 0.72 separating them from San Francisco, which is second in the National League's ERA standings, they may break the league record of 0.57, set by the 1907 Chicago Cubs, and are challenging the overall record of 0.77, set by the 1939 New York Yankees.

For Colborn, the ERA differential between the Dodgers and Giants represents the "biggest judging factor as to how effective" his and bullpen coach Jim Lett's pitchers have been.

"When you go to pick who the best player in baseball history is, it pretty much has to go to Babe Ruth," Colborn said. "He was hitting more home runs than some teams, so if you judge players in their own era against like performers, that's the best criteria.

"Plus, you have to consider the fact that our pitchers haven't had the opportunity to pitch against the weakest-hitting team in the league. They've had to take on the top 15, which is one of the reasons they've done so well.

"Every inning is so important because the games are so close. They've had to concentrate to such an extent that they've turned it into a positive motivator for the most part and developed a group chemistry in the process. Their accomplishments, individually and collectively, have created a positive competitiveness among them."

The Dodgers, of course, have been the weakest-hitting team in the league, and Colborn couldn't resist the reminder.

Who can blame him? The Dodgers have now scored two runs or fewer 52 times.

Batting coach Jack Clark may have been fired for speaking the truth, but would the Dodgers relieve the coach of baseball's best staff?

"In this era," General Manager Dan Evans said, "to have a staff ERA even in the vicinity of 3.00 is remarkable, and maybe the most remarkable aspect is the balance. We're not relying on just the starters or just the relievers."

Sometimes, of course, there is more to it than the man on the mound.

Evans said that reports filed by advance scout Mark Weidemaier have played into the staff's success, and Colborn credited catchers Paul Lo Duca, David Ross and Todd Hundley.

"They've done a fantastic job of applying the pitcher's strength to the weakness of the hitter," Colborn said.

"They're some of the best catchers I've seen in terms of calling games."

Tonight, the Dodgers lean on young Edwin Jackson again. Jackson, being asked to beat the Diamondbacks for the second time in a week, is replacing Odalis Perez, who has a broken fingernail.

The Dodgers have 13 games remaining. Beyond that, it's difficult to predict.

The only certainty, in fact, is that their pitching staff will continue to give them a chance. A noted broadcaster might call it a certainty stretching to Brooklyn.

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