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Ross Newhan / ON BASEBALL

No Excuses, Just a Title for Giants

September 19, 2003|Ross Newhan

It was no surprise, of course, when the San Francisco Giants clinched the National League West title Wednesday night, putting their champagne stamp on what had been a foregone conclusion for most of the second half.

The back door to the playoffs remains ajar for the Dodgers, but the Giants have convincingly slammed the door on the blue's oft-mentioned spring goal of a division title by going wire to wire in the West, only the ninth team to win a division or league in that manner.

When the end came, when the Giants danced on the Dodgers' division grave, boogieing as a group in front of their dugout at Pacific Bell Park after watching the final outs of L.A.'s 2-0 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks on the center-field screen, the 13-game disparity could only be called, well ...

Embarrassing? Demoralizing? Maybe a little frightening?

"My answer would be all of the above," Dodger center fielder Dave Roberts said.

"When your aspirations in spring training are to win the division and then to see them clinching with almost two weeks still left in the season is pretty frustrating.

"In this division I don't think the Giants are 12 or 13 games better than we are as far as talent, but they found ways to win games that we didn't, and that tends to make it even more frustrating.

"I mean, it's one thing to conclude that a team is far better than you are and to say that the best you should be able to do is finish second, but that isn't the case and that wasn't the case."

The reality, however, is what it is.

The Dodgers have 11 games left, can only qualify for the playoffs as the wild card, and still require help.

The reality is they were routed in the division by a team that refused to succumb to turnover or tourniquet.

While Dodger management tends to bemoan the three starting pitchers who were lost through injury in September of last year and Odalis Perez misses a critical start Wednesday night because of a broken fingernail that probably wouldn't have sidelined Rosie Perez, the Giants simply got it done.

"Would they have lost the first two games to Arizona?" Roberts said before the Dodgers salvaged the series finale. "Would they have lost as many to San Diego as we have? I don't think so.

"They had a great season, and you have to give credit where credit is due. They had just as many injuries as we did and fared far better with them."

Although the division standings document the validity of that, it would be difficult for anyone to have fared better than Wilson Alvarez has.

Stepping into the rotation berth once occupied by Darren Dreifort, the veteran left-hander came up big again in the must-win scenario of Thursday night.

Alvarez delivered seven shutout innings in a 2-0 victory nervously saved by Eric Gagne.

A flawless relay from Shawn Green to Alex Cora to Paul Lo Duca in the eighth inning prevented the Diamondbacks from scoring a run that would have tied the score at 1-1 and ended Gagne's remarkable save streak.

Then, working a full second inning for the fifth time this season and the first ever in a save situation, Gagne maintained the 2-0 margin despite a pair of leadoff singles.

How often the invincible right-hander can pitch two innings over the season's final 10 days is uncertain, but the Dodgers can't afford to lose.

They closed to within 2 1/2 games of the wild-card leading Marlins with the victory and now get those hated Giants for three games in a scenario in which San Francisco still has reason to compete.

Although the Giants are battling Atlanta for the league's best record and home-field advantage through the first two rounds of the playoffs, Manager Felipe Alou said that only goes so far.

"We'll manage the games the way we manage games," Alou said after his team clinched the West, "but for us to throw Jason Schmidt for nine innings would be foolish, or to throw our stopper three consecutive games.

"We are going to try to win for the integrity of the game, but we have responsibility to our fans, the front office and the players [to prepare for the playoffs]."

The Giants have won six division titles, three since 1997.

They won this time while replacing the popular Dusty Baker with a manager some thought too old and devoid of passion ("a lot of ....," Alou said after the clinching) and four starters from their World Series team.

They won despite losing closer Robb Nen for the season, trading Russ Ortiz (their top winner of last year) and employing 13 starting pitchers while being forced to use the disabled or bereavement list 25 times. Schmidt lost his mother during the season and may win the Cy Young Award. Barry Bonds lost his father and may win the most-valuable-player award.

In San Francisco, Bonds cited the club's professionalism and said:

"The whole team went through a lot of sorrow, and it shows the character of this ballclub that guys came back and did their jobs.

"We tried to stay strong for the team, and basically we all held ourselves together."

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