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Bill Shaikin SUNDAY REPORT

Dodgers just might be fall guys

September 07, 2008|Bill Shaikin

Think blue. Dream big.

The autumn leaves could be blue this year. The Dodgers could be in the World Series.

They were left for dead a week ago. They were at .500 two days ago. They have been in first place in the National League West for a few hours.

The Dodgers are a flawed team, with no business being in a pennant race, let alone in first place. But the standings are reset in October, and the Dodgers could take it from there, and into the World Series.

This is not the American League, with a Goliath in pinstripes, red socks or halos standing between the Dodgers and the World Series. This is the National League, where the team with the best record has failed to advance to the World Series in seven of the last eight years.

The Dodgers are on pace to win 82 games. In 2006, the St. Louis Cardinals won 83, backing into the playoffs by losing nine of their last 12 games.

"It was like, whew, new life," said David Eckstein, then the Cardinals' shortstop. "We had made it.

"It doesn't matter what your record is once you get in. We heard about it the whole year. The end result is, it doesn't mean a thing if you get in."

The end result for the Cardinals? They got to the World Series -- and won, with Eckstein as most valuable player.

"We heard we had no chance to win," he said. "You can say what you want, but in the playoffs, it all comes down to pitching and timely hitting."

In that case, the Dodgers could be fine, thanks to Chad Billingsley, Derek Lowe and Manny Ramirez. We would not have dared make the Dodgers' case even a week ago, but hitting might not be all that is timely in their world right now.

We've been waiting all year for the Diamondbacks to run away with the division, to follow the lead of Brandon Webb, Dan Haren and Randy Johnson.

Yet the Dodgers routed Webb and Haren in Phoenix last weekend, and again in L.A. this weekend. Johnson would have had his chance to stop the Dodgers' seven-game winning streak today, but the Diamondbacks scratched him because of a sore shoulder.

Arizona has been plagued by inconsistencies in various areas all summer, Manager Bob Melvin said, in all but the most critical area -- until now.

"This is the first time it's really cropped up with starting pitching," Melvin said.

And, should the Dodgers get to the playoffs, where a team needs that 1-2 pitching punch to last, Billingsley and Lowe could provide the Dodgers that staying power.

Joe Torre, the Dodgers' manager, knows. His New York Yankees dropped out of the playoffs in the first round in each of the last three years, in large part because he had no ace, notwithstanding the impressive victory totals run up by Chien-Ming Wang.

Billingsley, emerging as one of the elite pitchers in the majors, ranks second in the league in strikeouts and eighth in earned-run average. He pitched 6 1/3 scoreless innings in beating Webb and the Diamondbacks on Saturday, and he has given up no more than three runs in 11 straight starts.

Lowe won the clinching game for the Boston Red Sox in all three rounds of the 2004 playoffs. His 3.53 ERA is his lowest in six years. He has given up no more than three runs in eight of his last nine starts.

"He was pretty well discarded in Boston, and all of a sudden he won Game 7 against us," Torre said. "He's been somebody you can count on. And Billingsley looks like he's got the ability to be a No. 1."

In the playoffs, Billingsley and Lowe might not compare favorably to Carlos Zambrano and Rich Harden of the Chicago Cubs, but Zambrano and the oft-injured Harden are resting injuries right now.

The Milwaukee Brewers would offer CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets, but Sabathia had an 8.80 ERA last October and the oft-injured Sheets just returned from a groin injury.

Johan Santana, sure. But, for Game 2, the New York Mets might have to skip Pedro Martinez and John Maine, each troubled by a shoulder injury, for Mike Pelfrey. That might not be all bad for New York -- Pelfrey is 11-3 with a 2.96 ERA since June 1 -- but the scare factor of Johan and Pedro would be absent.

And, should the Philadelphia Phillies get into the playoffs, they probably would follow Cole Hamels with Brett Myers, who has a 1.39 ERA since Aug. 1 but was in the minor leagues in July.

The opposing pitcher, whatever his name, would have to face Ramirez. He is the Dodgers' first legitimate power hitter since Adrian Beltre in 2004, and it is impossible to overstate how he has transformed their lineup.

"He's a very dangerous hitter," Webb said. "He makes the guy who hits in front of him and the guy who hits behind him that much better."

Ramirez has been here barely five weeks, and already he has 11 home runs, same as Jeff Kent and James Loney.

He has a .500 on-base percentage, a figure bettered 19 times over a full season -- five times by Babe Ruth, four by Barry Bonds, three by Ted Williams. He has a .748 slugging percentage, a figure bettered 13 times over a full season -- four times by Ruth, four by Bonds.

All this talk of Manny, Babe and the World Series could just mean we spent too much time in the sun on Saturday.

These are the Dodgers, the team that was swept by the lowly Washington Nationals on the last trip. They're on their sixth choice at shortstop, with Angel Berroa following Rafael Furcal, Tony Abreu, Chin-lung Hu, Luis Maza and Nomar Garciaparra. Arizona could punt them back into second place this afternoon.

These Dodgers, in the World Series? Stranger things have happened. Ask the Diamondbacks' bench coach, guy by the name of Kirk Gibson.

--

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

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