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BASEBALL'S STRETCH RUN

L.A. Still High on Lowe

He goes seven scoreless innings in the Dodgers' 2-0 victory over the Diamondbacks. Drew homers again, and Saito gets the save.

September 23, 2006|Ben Bolch | Times Staff Writer

Four home runs in seven pitches is great and all, but the Dodgers desperately needed a different kind of production Friday night against Arizona.

Dodgers starting pitchers had averaged less than five innings in their previous six outings, taxing a bullpen that had gone from steely to susceptible.

Enter Derek Lowe, the ace of a flawed deck. The veteran right-hander continued to be the closest thing the Dodgers have to a dependable starter, pitching seven scoreless innings in the Dodgers' 2-0 victory at Dodger Stadium.

J.D. Drew provided Lowe with the only run he would need when he rocketed a leadoff homer into the right-field pavilion in the seventh inning, and Russell Martin and pinch-hitter Marlon Anderson generated another run with consecutive doubles later in the inning.

The victory enabled the Dodgers to remain half a game behind San Diego in the National League West and half a game ahead of Philadelphia in the wild-card race.

"We're right where we want to be, with a chance to make the playoffs," said Drew, who hit his team-leading 19th homer on a fastball that Diamondbacks starter Claudio Vargas had left over the plate.

Dodgers closer Takashi Saito pitched the final 1 1/3 innings, escaping the two-on jam that reliever Joe Beimel had created in the eighth inning by striking out Eric Byrnes looking at a 92-mph fastball for the final out. Saito pitched a scoreless ninth to notch his 21st save, tying him with Yhency Brazoban for the franchise saves record by a rookie.

Lowe gave up five hits, walked three and struck out three -- and was so frustrated by his performance that he went back into the clubhouse between innings to look at video.

"It was beyond a struggle," Lowe said, "but I think at the end of the day, when you get positive results, you feel a lot better about a game like this."

Lowe is 5-0 over his last eight starts with a 2.13 earned-run average. He has pitched seven innings in each of his last two appearances and is the only Dodgers starter to last longer than 5 1/3 innings since Greg Maddux pitched seven innings Sept. 15.

"It's going to take more than just one" starter pitching well to make the playoffs, Dodgers Manager Grady Little said. "We're going to need everyone to be good every day."

So valuable is Lowe that the Dodgers are juggling their rotation to ensure that he pitches twice more over the season's final eight games. He is slated to pitch in Colorado on Wednesday and then on three days' rest in the Oct. 1 finale at San Francisco if the Dodgers need a victory to make the playoffs.

Lowe (15-8) faced only two threats and escaped them both, inducing a double-play grounder off the bat of Byrnes with two on to end the first inning and getting Craig Counsell to tap out to first baseman Nomar Garciaparra with two on for the final out of the fifth.

The Dodgers' need for a victory to keep pace in their playoff push became more vital as the night progressed. Philadelphia's 5-2 victory over Florida was secured in the early going, and San Diego built an early three-run lead en route to a 6-2 victory over Pittsburgh.

Little acknowledged before the game that he engaged in scoreboard watching.

"Sometimes I stare and pray a little bit," he quipped.

The magnitude of the game was evident by the fact that it was only the fourth time this season that Saito recorded a save by pitching more than one inning. Not even a member of the bullpen on opening day, the right-hander has only two blown saves and is holding batters to a .175 average, best among National League relievers.

"We're pushing everyone a little bit," Little said. "He was outstanding."

Going into Friday's game, the Dodgers needed to win seven of their final nine contests to reach Little's prescribed threshold of 87 victories necessary to reach the playoffs. Did that seem like a realistic possibility?

"As streaky as we've been all year? Sure, that's doable," Little said before the game.

The Diamondbacks mounted an early threat when Counsell led off the game with a walk and went to second on Orlando Hudson's slow roller to third baseman Wilson Betemit that went for an infield single. But Luis Gonzalez bounced into a fielder's choice and Byrnes hit into a double play, and the danger was averted.

Arizona's only other scoring opportunity against Lowe came in the fifth, when Stephen Drew singled with one out and went to second on Claudio Vargas' two-out single through the right side of the infield. But Counsell tapped out harmlessly to Garciaparra, who flipped to Lowe covering first.

ben.bolch@latimes.com

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