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Bill Dwyre

Martin Keeps a Handle on This Game

September 09, 2006|Bill Dwyre | Bill Dwyre can be reached at bill.dwyre@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Dwyre, go to latimes.com/dwyre.

NEW YORK — It was a great night for a ballgame, so the Dodgers went out and played one.

Before they hung a 5-0 beauty here on baseball's Beast of the East, the 87-53 Mets, who are so far ahead in their division that the Philadelphia Phillies need binoculars, Dodgers General Manager Ned Colletti keynoted what was about to take place.

"This is the biggest game of the year," he said.

Of course, he admits to saying that before every game. But the credibility of that statement was high for two reasons: First, Colletti is a former sportswriter, which makes his utterances gospel; second, and a bit more important, it is September and the Dodgers are in a pennant race.

This current trek that started in Milwaukee and got to a 1-3 start after Thursday night's defeat at the hands of the Beast could have turned quickly into the makings of a death march without Friday night's reversal.

Now, with the knowledge that the big booms of the Beast's bats can occasionally be silenced, and the knowledge that it can be done despite the likes of Friday night's loud and loyal gathering of 52,077 in the Beast's outdated, smelly pigpen known as Shea Stadium, the sky is the limit. Better yet, the title in the National League West.

Now, two more here today and Sunday, in the New York daylight, with the sounds of the U.S. Open drifting over from next door as Roger Federer plays his own brand of stickball, with maybe a split, and things set up nicely for the Dodgers to take control in the West. They go from here to Chicago for three, and if there ever were a team to fatten up on, it would be the 56-85 Cubs. The line on the Cubs is: weak hitting, no pitching, suspect ownership. (Just kidding there, bosses.)

After that, it is the dreaded Padres, four games at home, maybe for all the marbles. As the Dodgers' promotion people would say, get your tickets now, fans.

The Dodgers of Friday night had this look of destiny. Tomorrow, of course, it may be the look of deadbeats. Such is baseball.

Consider the destiny. Their starting pitcher, left-hander Hong-Chih Kuo, was making his first major league start. Which is quite understandable in that he has already had the Tommy John elbow surgery twice and any manager worth his chaw of tobacco wasn't going to project or expect starter's work from somebody that fragile.

But lo and behold, Manager Grady Little rolled the dice, got six scoreless innings, seven strikeouts and somebody who will step onto the mound as the starter for the third game in Chicago on Thursday with a whole new swagger, in his eyes and in those of his teammates.

"He was in the strike zone all night," said catcher Russell Martin. "He was a lot better than the last time I caught him."

Then there was the matter of Martin, the rookie who has given the Dodgers such unexpected stability at catcher, bailing out Kuo at a key time, the first inning.

Mets shortstop Jose Reyes had walked to open the first, as a nervous Kuo tried to find the plate. Paul Lo Duca's slow roller was as good as a sacrifice bunt, sending Reyes to second.

Quickly, with Carlos Beltran at bat, this looked like vintage Beast baseball. Start fast, score a couple of quick runs and keep pounding away. That is why their magic number for clinching the NL East is seven, and that is why they have passed the 3-million mark in tickets sold at the earliest point of a season since 1989.

It also looked like vintage Beast baseball, with Reyes poised on second and aiming to steal third, the same Reyes who has stolen 56 bases for the Mets this year and who wheeled around the bases Thursday night like Jesse Owens for an inside-the-park homer.

This time, no way, Jose.

Martin, with the possible help of third base umpire Bill Miller on a close play, threw out Reyes. Had Reyes made it, he would have scored easily when Carlos Delgado flied out deep to center after Beltran had walked. Instead of having the L.A. lead cut to 2-1 and a slightly shaken Dodgers pitcher, the inning was over and the night of destiny, which also included three Dodgers double plays, was on.

"When he threw out the guy at third in the first inning," Little said, "Russell set the tone for the game."

With things settling down on the mound, Rafael Furcal and Nomar Garciaparra made sure they'd stay that way. In the fifth, Furcal hit one 415 feet, over the center-field wall, and that was followed a batter later by Garciaparra's towering drive of 385 to left-center. That made it 4-0, and it would have been more had not Beltran reached over the wall in about the same spot Furcal's shot went out and robbed J.D. Drew of a homer in his at-bat immediately after Garciaparra.

OK, so maybe destiny hasn't found Drew yet, or vice versa. There is always another day. Such is baseball.

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