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Win Is Big in Grand Scheme

April 25, 2006|Steve Henson | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — Nomar Garciaparra has something fundamental in common with the security guard at the ATM, the rent-a-cop patrolling the mall and the bouncer at the dance club.

He was hired to provide protection.

Pitch around Jeff Kent? Answer to Garciaparra.

That's the plan anyway, and for one night it played out the way the Dodgers envisioned, with the new first baseman blasting a grand slam in the ninth inning to spark a 6-2 victory over the Houston Astros on Monday night at Minute Maid Park.

The homer followed walks to J.D. Drew and Kent and came against the nearly infallible Brad Lidge, who had converted 93% of his save chances since becoming a closer in June 2004.

The Astros began the ninth with a 2-1 lead on Lance Berkman's home run an inning earlier against reliever Takashi Saito. The Dodgers had ended starter Andy Pettitte's bid for a no-hitter on Drew's homer in the seventh, but otherwise their bats had been deathly quiet.

Nobody expected a peep against Lidge, who had not allowed a run in eight career appearances against the Dodgers.

But with one out Kenny Lofton tripled. Lidge was careful with Drew and Kent, the Nos. 3 and 4 hitters, loading the bases for Garciaparra, who was playing only his second game since the Dodgers signed him for $6 million; he'd spent the first 17 games on the disabled list.

Lidge fired two chest-high, 97-mph fastballs past him. Garciaparra hadn't seen pitches like that at Fresno, where he spent Thursday and Friday on a minor league rehabilitation assignment.

Another high fastball or one of Lidge's trademark, knee-buckling sliders seemed in order. Instead, his fastball was belt-high and Garciaparra hit it over the fence in left-center field, giving the Dodgers a 5-2 lead and sending the crowd of 28,383 streaming to the parking lot.

"You never lose a game in the first inning, and we kept battling and battling," Lofton said. "We stayed patient with Lidge. There is no key except to wait for a strike and swing only at strikes."

The Dodgers (10-10) reached .500 for the first time since April 15. They also fielded the lineup they expected on opening day for the first time, with Garciaparra batting fifth and Derek Lowe on the mound.

Lowe and Pettitte were dominant -- and effectively wild. Each threw 101 pitches, with Lowe throwing 62 strikes and Pettitte throwing 61.

Lowe allowed four hits and walked two, having trouble only with Brad Ausmus, who doubled twice and drove in a run. Pettitte walked three and did not allow a hit until Drew pulled a pitch into the first row of seats with one out in the seventh.

"You look forward to those matchups," Lowe said. "Then you get out there and look up, and he's throwing a no-hitter. It makes you bear down."

Saito came on in the eighth with the score, 1-1, and after striking out two hitters gave up the homer to Berkman -- the first run the 35-year-old rookie right-hander from Japan had allowed this season.

"When I got to the dugout, Nomar told me not to worry about it, that sometimes those things happen," Saito said.

When Garciaparra returned to the dugout after his home run -- his first grand slam since June 22, 2004 -- Saito (2-0) gave him an enthusiastic hug.

"After Berkman hit that shot, Saito was devastated," Garciaparra said. "We had to get to work and pick him up.

"I was just trying to get the ball up in the air to drive in a run. I just didn't want to hit into a double play because Bill Mueller was hitting behind me."

Protection, a concept with subtle benefits throughout the lineup. Pitching around Kent wasn't a bad idea -- he's driven in 123 runs in 153 games in this ballpark. But as long as Garciaparra continues to deliver, the Dodgers won't mind.

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