Sudoku puzzles, the Dodgers' season-long clubhouse time-killer, apparently are a casualty of playoff urgency. The players couldn't be bothered with them Friday, leaving only one person to work a one-through-nine brain teaser.
Manager Grady Little pored over lineup possibilities for tonight's game against the New York Mets, and the No. 3 had him stumped. Nomar Garciaparra, the player who normally bats in that position, will be restricted to pinch-hitting duty because of a partially torn left thigh muscle.
Even though a loss would end the Dodgers' season, the easygoing Little made light of the situation when Garciaparra poked his head into his office.
"Somebody has to replace Nomar Garciaparra," Little told him. "I've got five options. You make the call."
Little said he was considering third baseman Wilson Betemit, left fielder Marlon Anderson and rookie James Loney, who will take Garciaparra's place at first base. Another possibility was to bump up J.D. Drew from fifth to third. Still another was to move up cleanup batter Jeff Kent and Drew, so that Kent would bat third and Drew fourth.
"I like that one," Garciaparra said. "That's got my vote."
Little couldn't help adding more levity.
"If we keep Kent ahead of Drew, our baserunning won't change," he said.
Garciaparra burst into laughter at the reference to the embarrassing, costly play in the playoff opener that resulted in Kent and Drew both being tagged out at home plate.
The Dodgers lost, 6-5, then fell again, 4-1, at Shea Stadium and face elimination. Apparently they will face the grim with grins.
They will send veteran Greg Maddux to the mound to try to extend their season at least another day. They plan to use their only reliable relievers, Jonathan Broxton and Takashi Saito, up to two innings each, bypassing the rest of the bullpen.
And they will take an aggressive approach to the plate against a Mets pitcher, Steve Trachsel, who lasted only 2 2/3 innings against them a month ago.
"We have to get production from the top of our lineup and have to play better defense," Little said.
Kenny Lofton will bat second and play center field despite going 0 for 8. The only significant change will be the absence of Garciaparra, whose injury went from a strain to a tear when he dashed down the first-base line beating out an infield single in the fourth inning Thursday.
"It's not a complete tear, so I won't need surgery," he said. "I'd been trying to stay under control when I was running, but I saw I had to go all out when the ball ricocheted off [Mets third baseman] David Wright. The extra effort got me."
Loney should be an able replacement. He drove in nine runs during a game the last week of the regular season.
Of greater concern is Kent, whose chronically sore rib cage hampers his range at second base and speed on the bases. Wild horses couldn't keep him from playing, however.
"I'm getting by and I don't want to talk about it," he said of his health. "I don't want to give away my secrets."
He preferred to discuss what it would take for the Dodgers to win. Playing at home, where they were 49-32 and batted .293, gives Kent reason for optimism.
"I do believe home field means a lot in playoff games," he said. "I hope we do something special early in the game and ride that. Our fans will be behind us the same way the Mets' fans were behind them in New York.
"We have to lean on one day, lean on what we can control."
They will lean on Maddux, who probably needs to get into the seventh inning, given the Dodgers' bullpen problems. It has occurred to the 21-year-veteran that this might be his last game should he choose to retire after the season.
Like Kent, however, Maddux doesn't want to think beyond today.
"I've thought of that a few times, but no, I think I'll make my decision when it's time and right now is not the time," he said. "I'm looking forward to pitching. Hopefully we'll win and I'll get a chance to pitch again."
The odds are clearly against the Dodgers' winning three in a row and advancing to the NL Championship Series, but Little and Garciaparra know it's possible. After the laughter subsided in the manager's office, they were reminded of another team in another season, the 2003 Boston Red Sox, who fell behind the Oakland Athletics two games to none, then won three.
Garciaparra was the Red Sox shortstop, and Little was the manager.
"We know it can happen because we lived it," Garciaparra said. "We also know it wasn't easy."