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BASEBALL'S STRETCH RUN | J.A. Adande

They Still Have a Chance to Write Their Own Ticket

September 25, 2006|J.A. Adande

A few more games like this one and the Dodgers playoff tickets that go on sale today will be more than just expensive bookmarks.

It's almost as if it took this long, all the way to the 81st and final home game of the season, for the Dodgers to find the perfect template for winning, a road map to the postseason: great starting pitching, shutdown relief and clutch at-bats in the bottom of the ninth.

Those all contributed to the Dodgers' dramatic, October-hope-saving 5-1 victory Sunday afternoon over the Arizona Diamondbacks.

They're not in the lead for this final lap. They still trail the San Diego Padres by 1 1/2 games in the National League West and the Philadelphia Phillies by half a game in the wild card. The best thing you can say about the Dodgers is that they're there.

But what's been their lone constant quality this year? Every time you thought they were done, they came back.

Apparently they still haven't earned the complete faith of L.A. fans, because the last homestand in this season of record-setting ticket sales ended a few sections short of a sellout, with 49,822 announced for Sunday's game.

Maybe that loss Saturday night to the Diamondbacks dampened the enthusiasm. How bad was that one? It looked even worse when I picked up the Arizona Republic Sunday morning on my way back from the USC-Arizona game and saw the Dodgers game story on page 10. If you're entertaining serious playoff thoughts, this is no time for losing to teams that can't make the front page of their hometown sports section.

It brought to mind that other trait of this team. Every time it appeared to break through, it slipped back. Perhaps General Manager Ned Colletti was mindful of the six-losses-in-eight-games skid in August that followed the 17-of-18 winning run, and the back-to-back losses that followed the crazy comeback against San Diego a week ago, when he said, simply, "We'll see what the week will bring."

Colletti was on the escalator down to the Dodgers clubhouse minutes after Nomar Garciaparra's walk-off grand slam. A fan headed the opposite direction pointed at Colletti and said, "Nice game!" -- as if Colletti had been out on the field.

Truth is, this game did have his stamp all over it. He brought in the veterans such as Garciaparra and Kenny Lofton, who drove in the Dodgers' first run in the fifth inning and kept them alive in the ninth with a two-out walk. He spent his one big check on Rafael Furcal, who looked like a perfect leadoff hitter Sunday by reaching base in all five plate appearances (two hits, three walks). And the organization stuck with Hong-Chih Kuo and turned him into a trusty starter.

The Dodgers desperately needed a starter besides Derek Lowe to go seven innings and Kuo came through with seven innings, yielding only one unearned run before giving way to the desired one-two punch of Jonathan Broxton and Takashi Saito. On top of that, Kuo picked up his first career hit with a double off the left-field wall. Kuo even earned extra style points for briefly pausing at the top of his follow-through like a golfer who just crushed a tee shot, before dramatically dropping his bat.

So while Colletti deserves credit for this year's success, he faces more pressure this off-season and next year. Come close this year and the Dodgers gave it a good try. Come close next year and they fail.

And his low-risk gamble on Garciaparra might have worked too well. Garciaparra, signed to a one-year $6-million base salary, has already racked up an extra $2 million in plate-appearance incentives and created immense sentimental value among the fans with his game-winning home run in the 10th inning to cap the Monday Night Madness last week, in addition to Sunday's heroics. With each big hit, the price goes up.

"I don't even worry about that," Garciaparra said. "I'm worried about what we have to do right now. You worry about that later."

Garciaparra will be even riskier next year, when he turns 34. His body broke down in the second half of the season; he hit .358 before the All-Star break and has hit .216 since.

"He can barely walk," Manager Grady Little said. "But what he has given us out there in the condition he's been in has been outstanding."

He sure has given the highlight film editors plenty to work with. Steve Finley hit a memorable game-winning (and division-winning) grand slam two Septembers ago, and the Dodgers didn't bring him back. Finley's numbers might have dropped off the next season, but so did the Dodgers' win total. They can't afford a repeat of that karma hit with Garciaparra.

"He has great character, leadership, he's an outstanding person," catcher Russell Martin said. "He just shows it on the field and off the field. Plus he's a great player. And clutch, man."

Said Garciaparra, "It's easy when you play next to these guys. These guys are awesome people, awesome teammates."

Spoken like a Southern California native. Awesome, dude!

But these Dodgers aren't awe-inspiring. They'll still cross their fingers and hope for another six innings from their starters and try not to wince when they call for the middle relievers. They'll deal with the lineup that returned to normal and hit five home runs the rest of the week after hitting five in two innings Monday night.

So anyone buying a playoff ticket today is acting more on faith than security. As an organization, the Dodgers can't give you their word that you'll actually be able to use those tickets for games. You'll just have to take Marlon Anderson's.

"We're going to find a way," Anderson said. "Somehow, some way, we're going to do what it takes."

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J.A. Adande can be reached at j.a.adande@latimes.com. To read more by Adande go to latimes.com/adandeblog.

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