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BASEBALL PLAYOFFS

Dodgers are an October surprise

October 02, 2008|Bill Plaschke

CHICAGO -- October arrived Wednesday on the back of a chilly lake wind and a nasty neighborhood roar.

The Dodgers shrugged.

October arrived with the doom of a two-run deficit in four miserable innings.

The Dodgers grinned.

October arrived high, hard, and screaming down at them with the bad luck that has plagued their postseasons for the last 20 years.

The Dodgers turned on it.

Finally, they turned on it.

James Loney hit it 400 feet into a Wrigley Field mob gone silent.

Derek Lowe sent it spinning toward Chicago Cubs bats gone still.

Manny Ramirez schemed around it, slugged over it, and even outran it.

Before Wednesday, the last time the Dodgers won the first game of a postseason series was the 1988 World Series.

This was no Kirk Gibson home run, but that team finally has some company.

"This is a new season, a new time, a new team," said Andre Ethier.

During a diminuendo of a Wrigleyville evening -- very loud, then very soft -- it was all those things, the Dodgers defeating the favored Chicago Cubs, 7-2, to take the first game of the National League division series.

This was still only the Dodgers' second postseason win in 20 years, but it felt like a beginning.

"We know we can play with the Cubs," said reliever Cory Wade amid the laughter of a clubhouse that reeked of relief. "We know we can play with anybody."

The cliche is that this is only one game. But the reality is that this is only a five-game series.

The cliche is that postseason momentum is the next day's starting pitcher. But the reality is that today, the Cubs are pitching recently erratic Carlos Zambrano against steady Dodger Chad Billingsley.

The Dodgers win today -- and they can certainly win today -- this series is done.

"Let's hope we get better," Cubs Manager Lou Piniella said.

The Cubs were awful Wednesday, their first five batters combining for two hits while intimidated starter Ryan Dempster walked seven batters, the most by a Cubs postseason starter in 73 years.

But for the first four innings, the Dodgers were worse.

During that time they put six runners on base and couldn't score any of them.

Ramirez ended one inning by grounding into a double play. Ethier ended another inning by striking out with a wild swing on a full-count pitch with the bases loaded.

Thanks to Mark DeRosa's two-run homer, the Cubs led, 2-0, in the fifth inning, two out, Rafael Furcal on first base, up steps Ramirez.

What followed was perhaps the most important plate appearance of the night, and Ramirez never even put the ball in play.

Foul ball. Swinging strike. Foul ball. Ball. Ball. Ball. Ball.

Said Wade: "We've seen a lot from him this year, but for him to get down 0 and 2 and still draw that walk in that situation, that was amazing."

The inning extended, a frustrated Dempster walked Ethier to load the bases, bringing up Loney, who showed the growing process of the Dodgers' youngsters in one at-bat.

He swung and missed wildly at the first two pitches. He took the next one for a ball. Dempster threw the next one down the middle and Loney did not miss.

At the time, with two strikes and bases loaded, the crowd was roaring.

The moment he hit the ball, a grand slam that soared into the seats, they fell eerily silent.

"All of a sudden, you could hear a pin drop," Wade said. "That one hit let the air out of this place."

While blowing up the Dodgers into believers.

"Our kids aren't kids, they're men," Greg Maddux said.

The five Dodgers youngsters -- Ethier, Loney, Matt Kemp, Russell Martin and Blake DeWitt -- combined to hit two home runs, drive in five and score four.

They led an offense that swung at only nine of 41 first pitches, showing a patience that can only come with maturity.

"It's something Joe [Torre] has been preaching the last few days, that this is a new season where personal goals don't matter, everything is about the team," Ethier said of his manager. "I think we get it."

That left the rest up to veterans Lowe and Ramirez, both former Boston Red Sox World Series champions who glowed while sitting together at the postgame news conference.

"It's the playoffs, and this is why you play the game," Lowe said.

Brought here four years ago for precisely these moments, Lowe shut down the Cubs after the grand slam, highlighted when he threw three consecutive strikes to Geovany Soto in the sixth inning with none out and a runner on second base.

Once they kept that momentum, Ramirez just built on it.

In the third inning, he legged out a grounder to short for a single. In the fifth inning, he drew that walk.

Then, in the seventh inning, he hit a clinching home run halfway up the left-center field bleachers on a pitch that seemed to graze his shoelaces.

"How did he do that?" Kemp said. "The last time I did something like that was in high school with an aluminum bat."

A high-school hit on a night that felt like the opening of a high school musical, filled with boldness and promise and song.

October is here, and, for once, the Dodgers are begging it to stay.

--

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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