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It's how you finish

Recent history shows that teams finishing the season strong, such as this year's Dodgers, continue their success into the postseason

October 04, 2006|Bill Shaikin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The New York Mets coasted to the finish line. The Dodgers sprinted there, huffing and puffing their way from the back of the pack.

Advantage Dodgers?

The Mets had the best record in the National League, spent one day out of first place and won their division by 12 games. The Dodgers occupied last place in their division at the end of July and did not clinch their wild-card playoff spot until the last day of September.

Advantage Dodgers?

This is October Madness, baseball's postseason tournament. This is when the hottest teams send the best teams home for the winter.

So the Dodgers need not fear the Mets. The Dodgers begin the playoffs riding a seven-game winning streak. In the wild-card era, four teams have started the playoffs with that long of a winning streak, and all have advanced past the first round.

"The so-called 'best team' doesn't always win," said pitcher Derek Lowe, who starts Game 1 for the Dodgers today. "It's the team that gets hot. That's what the playoffs are all about."

The Angels won the World Series as a wild-card team in 2002, beating the wild-card San Francisco Giants. The Florida Marlins won as a wild card in 2003, as did the Boston Red Sox in 2004. The Chicago White Sox clinched their division championship on the final weekend last season and beat the wild-card Houston Astros in the World Series.

Dodgers Manager Grady Little was only half-kidding when he said of the Mets: "They've pretty much known they've been in the playoffs since May 1."

So is New York General Manager Omar Minaya worried that the Dodgers could wreck six months of a dream season in, say, four days?

"I don't want to use the word 'worry,' " Minaya said. "There's no doubt we respect what they've done."

Minaya has plenty to worry about in his clubhouse. The Mets were 15-15 in the final month, scoring fewer runs than any NL team except the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds.

Carlos Beltran, the Mets' No. 3 hitter, batted .203 in September, hampered by a strained leg muscle. Carlos Delgado, the No. 4 hitter, batted .227 with no home runs in his last 44 at-bats, hampered by soreness in his rib cage.

And, although a team that clinches early can gain a strategic advantage in aligning its starting rotation, the Mets can forget about that. The Mets don't even know who will start today.

After they lost ace Pedro Martinez to injury last week, they replaced him atop their playoff rotation with Orlando Hernandez. Then Hernandez injured his right calf while jogging Tuesday, leaving the Mets doubting whether he can pitch today and unsure whether to replace him with rookie John Maine, use 40-year-old Tom Glavine on three days' rest or try a Hail Mary with Oliver Perez or Dave Williams.

"I wish they'd lose some of their hitters, if they had to lose somebody," Little said. "We know our job is going to be determined by getting those guys out. They've got a good lineup."

So do the Dodgers, at least for now. They have won seven consecutive games, six on the road, and they scored more runs in September than any team in the league except the Colorado Rockies and Philadelphia Phillies.

"We've been a streaky club all season long," Little said. "We're in another one of those good streaks right now."

The Mets know all about that. In their last postseason appearance, six years ago, they qualified as a wild-card team and advanced to the World Series. They won eight of their final nine regular-season games, then knocked out San Francisco in the first round, in a year the Giants had the best record in the league and won their division by 11 games.

Dodgers General Manager Ned Colletti, the assistant general manager of that San Francisco team, cited a "give and take" between clinching early and resting players at the end of the season and clinching late and rolling that momentum into October.

"Sometimes, when you do stop to take a breath, it takes you awhile to get it back," he said. "Having to play meaningful games in the end is always a plus."

Greg Maddux, scheduled to start Game 3 for the Dodgers, pitched for division champions every year of his decade in Atlanta. The Braves had the best record in the league eight times in that span, with one World Series championship to show for it.

"I've always liked being able to set everything up, rest guys, and get the rotation the way you want," he said.

But didn't the Braves get bounced from the playoffs by hotter teams?

"All the time," he said.



On a wild streak

The Dodgers are the fifth team since the wild-card era began in 1995 -- and, in fact, since 1975 -- to enter the playoffs on a winning streak of seven games or more. The other four all advanced past the first round. How they did, with streak in parentheses (*wild-card team):

1998 Yankees (7): beat Rangers in first round, beat Indians in ALCS,

beat Padres in World Series.

* 1998 Braves (7): beat Cubs in first round, lost to Padres in NLCS.

* 2002 Giants (8): beat Braves in first round, beat Cardinals in NLCS,

lost to Angels in World Series.

* 2004 Astros (7): beat Braves in first round, lost to Cardinals in NLCS.

Sources: Elias Sports Bureau,

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