It was 4:40 p.m. Saturday as Steve Finley walked to home plate at Dodger Stadium. He paused to soak in the environment, to feel the cheers of the crowd of 54,594 wash over him, to look at the clear blue sky, to note the shadows that stretched nearly all the way to right field.
Then he turned his attention to San Francisco Giant left-hander Wayne Franklin, looked at the three Dodgers on base and focused on the task at hand.
Down by three runs entering the ninth inning, the Dodgers had already scored three times and there was still only one out. With the Giant defense playing in, all that was needed was a fly ball or a deep grounder to get the winning run home.
"I wanted to enjoy the atmosphere," said the 39-year-old Finley, a 16-year veteran. "I knew I would get it done."
Did he ever. Finley got his fly ball on the second pitch from Franklin, a fastball that cleared the wall in right field at the 375-foot sign, a grand slam to give the Dodgers a 7-3 victory, a franchise-record 53 comeback victories and, most important, the championship of the National League West Division for the first time in nine years.
The Dodgers will open the postseason in either St. Louis or Atlanta, depending on the outcome of the wild-card race. If the Houston Astros beat the Colorado Rockies today, they will win the wild card and the Dodgers will play the Cardinals. If the Astros lose and the Giants beat the Dodgers, the Astros and Giants will require a one-game playoff to determine the wild card. If it turns out to be the Giants, the Dodgers will open against the Braves.
But all that could wait for today. Saturday was for celebrating, for unleashing the frustration that has enveloped this franchise for nearly a decade. As Finley, obtained in a trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks on the last day of July, circled the bases, fist raised to the sky, Manager Jim Tracy, who has known his share of disappointment in his four years on the job, hugged his coaches. Frank and Jamie McCourt, who purchased the team before the season, embraced in their club dugout seats. General Manager Paul DePodesta, who made the deal that brought Finley to Los Angeles, broke into a smile as wide as Chavez Ravine.
And at home plate, an army in Dodger blue waited, to pound and high-five the man who had just struck the most dramatic blow at Dodger Stadium since Kirk Gibson made his only appearance in the 1988 World Series.
"That one swing spoke volumes," Frank McCourt said of Finley's blast, standing on the field surrounded by well-wishers. "That's why Paul made the moves he did."
Said DePodesta in the clubhouse, speaking through a shower of champagne and beer: "We had them right where we wanted them when we were down in the ninth inning."
There was only silence in the somber Giant clubhouse.
"Any time you have a three-run lead and you need to get three outs in the ninth and you lose, it's stunning," said Giant reliever Matt Herges, who pitched in that ninth.
Nobody in the Dodger dugout was thinking about champagne and beer through much of Saturday's game.
Forced to give Elmer Dessens his first start as a Dodger because of injuries and ineffectiveness in the rest of the rotation, the Dodgers fell behind in the fourth inning on a two-run single by Marquis Grissom. Grissom drove in the third Giant run as well with his 21st home run, a solo homer in the seventh.
With Giant closer Dustin Hermanson on the mound, the Dodgers began the bottom of the ninth with a single to left by Shawn Green. Hermanson walked Robin Ventura and, after striking out Alex Cora, walked pinch-hitter Jose Hernandez to load the bases.
Up came pinch-hitter Hee-Seop Choi. DePodesta, who has taken a wave of criticism for the deal with the Florida Marlins that brought Choi to L.A, admitted his dream scenario was for Choi to win the game.
Choi did well enough, coaxing an eight-pitch walk out of Hermanson, who had saved 17 games in 20 opportunities before Saturday, to bring home the first Dodger run.
Exit Hermanson, enter Jason Christiansen.
Cesar Izturis hit a ground ball to short. Cody Ransom, inserted into the game for defensive purposes at the start of the inning, failed to come up with the grounder, the ball remaining at his feet as another Dodger run scored.
Exit Christiansen, enter Herges, a former Dodger.
Jayson Werth lined a run-scoring single to right, tying the score as the bases remained loaded.
Exit Herges, enter Franklin.
As Finley swung, pitcher Jose Lima, poised to leap in joy as he watched the flight of the ball, muttered to himself, "Finally ... finally ... finally."
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Ninth Is Fine
A look at how the Dodgers came back from a 3-0 deficit in the bottom of the ninth:
* A slumping Shawn Green starts the inning against Giants' Dustin Hermanson with a bloop hit that falls in front of a sliding Barry Bonds.
* Robin Ventura walks on 3-2 pitch and the crowd suddenly has something to cheer about.
* Alex Cora quiets the crowd when he takes a called third strike.