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Bill Plaschke

Consider This the Beginning of What Will Be a Grind to Finish

September 22, 2006|Bill Plaschke

Now that was a miracle.

The Dodgers finally beat the mighty Pittsburgh Pirates on Thursday, maintaining both their tenuous playoff spot and their slipping sanity.

OK, so their starting pitcher barely lasted half the game. And, yeah, the eventual winning run was driven home by a guy whose bat never left his shoulder.

And, well, the only record was set by somebody not wearing a uniform, the 3,608,882nd ticket-buying fan setting a new Dodger Stadium attendance mark.

But, hey, they won, their first victory since the mother of all victories on Monday night, a 5-2 defeat of the Pirates that came with a four-word warning label.

Get used to it.

This is how the final nine games will be played. This is how the playoffs will be made. This is how the playoffs are always made.

Every night will not be the last two innings of Monday night. The Dodgers will not gracefully enter October. They will have to grind their way there.

The kids are feeling their way around strange corners. The vets are trying to hide familiar aches. The manager is poring over an empty lineup card each afternoon wondering exactly how to fill it.

It's how they're built. But it's what they do best. It might not always be pretty, but it will always be interesting, and, on nights such as Thursday, it will be standing ovations and Randy Newman sing-a-longs and hope.

"Every day is going to be a grind," Manager Grady Little said afterward. "But thankfully we have a room full of guys who are not going to quit."

Here's how that room looked Thursday:

The middle relievers were the stars, throwing four scoreless innings during a week in which they had trouble getting four consecutive outs.

The veteran batters won it with their eyes, Jeff Kent and J.D. Drew drawing consecutive walks to score the go-ahead run again a shaken kid named Josh Sharpless.

The most dramatic moments involved the out-of-town scoreboard, the Padres defeating Arizona just as the Pirates' Jason Bay was hitting a long fly ball in the eighth inning with the tying run on first.

The ball was caught. The Dodger Stadium sigh was audible.

Nine games left, and, yeah, get used to it.

"I love this time of year," Rafael Furcal said. "But baseball is really crazy, you know?"

The evening started with a challenge from Don Newcombe. He knows a little bit about this time of year, having won six pennants with the Brooklyn Dodgers and a world championship against the New York Yankees.

After watching the Dodgers follow Monday's heroics with two losses to the second-worst team in the National League, the beloved ambassador was confused.

"What they did Monday night should have been an inspiration for them, but it wasn't," Newcombe said. "You have a team come in here after that kind of win and they kick your butt? It shouldn't work that way."

Newcombe said it's all about the Dodgers getting under somebody's skin -- their own.

"This time of year, each individual has to go deep down and dig out 10-15% more effort," he said. "It's like digging for oil. Where's all the oil? Down deep, that's where."

Newcombe said he wasn't seeing enough of that anywhere in baseball.

"Maybe it's because of all the kids coming up, maybe it's because of all the diversions, but people aren't doing it," he said. "This is the time of year you reward the people who are paying them exorbitant amounts of money. This is the time you reward the fans who come to watch you. They're not doing this, and they need to start."

Three hours later, consider it started.

Playing with a side ache and leg ache and a sure date on the disabled list if this wasn't September, Kent slowed one potential big inning with a diving stop, and another with a double-play flip.

Even as his home-run bat from Monday night was being sent to Cooperstown, Marlon Anderson was using another bat for a suicide squeeze bunt that helped clinch the game in the eighth.

Then there were the maligned middle relievers.

Joe Beimel ended one inning with a pickoff. Jonathan Broxton struck out Ryan Doumit on four pitches with the tying run on third and one out in the eighth. Takashi Saito struck out three in the ninth.

"Those middle relievers have a chance to be like managers," Little said with a grin.

Say what?

"They never get any credit when we win ... but when we lose, they take all the heat," he said.

The evening ended, after the game, with Little coming to home plate to hug Jim Tracy, a simple act that spoke loudly.

All week, Tracy has refused to gloat about beating his former team, even though the losses that could keep them out of the playoffs. That hug was one of the reasons.

"You have to understand, I have a lot of friends over there, people who helped us win that division championship two years ago, plus I really like Grady, I would never say anything bad about them," Tracy said.

But was he happy winning two out of three? Did it make him smile to look across the field at Dodgers owner Frank McCourt, who has not spoken to Tracy since before he was fired?

"Being a human being, having been traded before, I can only imagine what Jim had been feeling," the Pirates' Bay said with a grin.

Now Tracy takes his Pirates to San Diego for the weekend, and all those fans who booed him this week will be cheering him again. Meanwhile, the Arizona Diamondbacks come to town with a team that seems tired and beaten, which means the next three days will be taut and frightful.

Get used to it.

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

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