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Bill Plaschke

Out of the blue, pieces fall in place

October 06, 2008|Bill Plaschke

Of all the numbers floating atop the sudsy Dodger Stadium joy Saturday night -- 20 years, three-game sweep, eight more wins -- the most important one was never mentioned.

In a sport that celebrates perseverance, it's a number that doesn't make sense.

In an organization that built its tradition on continuity, it's a number that is actively shunned.

Yet there it was, the most compelling number of one of the Dodgers' most compelling playoff series in history.

Zero.

That is the number of times the Dodgers had used their division-series-winning lineup before the division series.

The eight position players who took the field for the opening game against the Chicago Cubs had never before started a game together.

Never.

Imagine a Broadway hit show that wasn't cast until opening afternoon, an "Extreme Home Makeover" occurring entirely during a commercial break.

Russell Martin, James Loney, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier were there, minding their own business, heading toward second place in a lousy division, when all heaven broke loose.

Casey Blake arrived in late July. Manny Ramirez showed up at the beginning of August.

Blake DeWitt returned from Las Vegas to play second base at the end of August. Rafael Furcal returned from a back injury in the final weekend of the regular season.

Talk about an odd way to celebrate your franchise's 50th anniversary.

The Dodgers once boasted of an infield that played together 8 1/2 years, yet entered this postseason with a lineup that had not been together even one minute.

The Dodgers once had two managers in 43 years, yet they advance to the National League Championship Series with a lineup that has now played together all of three games.

If this is not a major league record, it has certainly tied one.

"It's pretty strange," said pitcher Derek Lowe. "When people come up to me and ask why we're not the same team as earlier in the season . . . well, it's because we're literally not the same team."

Even guys who have been here are not the same guys.

Jonathan Broxton has been closing for only about half the season.

Cory Wade has been his main setup guy for only about a month.

Martin was in the starting lineup as catcher five fewer times than last year, and even that small amount of rest has helped.

"The last couple of months have felt like a new season," Andre Ethier said. "We get to the playoffs, and it feels like we're just getting started."

How does this happen?

Baseball is not a fast-food sport, teams cannot be quickly ordered, hopes cannot be instantly super-sized. Lots of late-season movement rarely pays off. Egos are too big, clubhouses are too small, the need for familiarity is too great.

How does this happen?

"It's a combination of a lot of things," Manager Joe Torre said. "Mostly, I think, it's about a bunch of guys who understand."

He's right, only the Dodgers have different players understanding different things.

They have stars who understand the desperation of contract years.

Rafael Furcal would have worked just as hard to return from a back injury if he weren't a free agent at the end of this season.

But, as with Manny Ramirez and Derek Lowe, it's only human to pay more attention to your work when your future beyond next month depends on it.

They have kids who understand "team."

Remember when Jeff Kent ripped the Dodgers youngsters last fall? Turns out, it may have been the most important pep talk of their career.

They get it now. They're all about winning now. They have put aside their fears of being returned to the minor leagues, replacing them with their hopes of a world championship.

"When you are new here, you are just worried about staying here," Ethier said. "We don't feel that way anymore. We'll sacrifice ourselves for the team because we know it's bigger than us."

They have veterans who understand winning.

This run would have been impossible without the willingness of former headliners Kent, Nomar Garciaparra and Juan Pierre to sit quietly in the background.

All of them believe they should be playing. But they also believe in winning and will do nothing to upset the championship clubhouse buzz.

"They made my life a lot easier to write a lineup without their names in it," said a thankful Torre.

They have a manager who understands everything.

This will sound like sacrilege to New York Yankees fans, but this season may be Torre's finest hour.

He has won not by being a Yankees symbol or a George Steinbrenner soldier or the boss of the highest-paid team in baseball.

He has won simply by being Joe Torre.

This is all him, from his patience with a disjointed spring training to his flexibility with late-season additions.

He didn't survive this year on his pinstriped legacy, he survived on his Torre legacy, eventually winning the kids with his grandfatherly understanding, winning the veterans with his solid strategy, bringing them together with a clubhouse transparency that made everyone feel included in everything.

"None of this happens without Joe Torre," Ethier said.

It's amazing that any of this is happening, period.

Fifty years old, and the Dodgers are screeching through October like a newborn.

--

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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