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They catch on, gaining ground and confidence

Helene Elliott

September 08, 2008|Helene Elliott

Two on, two out, Dodgers leading by two in the ninth but straining to stay ahead of the Arizona Diamondbacks on the scoreboard and in the National League West.

Joe Torre, forced to manage and not merely fill out a lineup card, had used five pitchers, three third basemen and two second basemen. He brought Nomar Garciaparra off the bench in the seventh inning to play third base but moved him to the opposite corner in the next inning, only the second time Garciaparra had played first base in a game this season.

Jonathan Broxton retired the first two batters but was tagged for a double by pinch-hitter Chad Tracy and gave up a walk to Adam Dunn. He worked the count on Conor Jackson to 1-and-1 before unleashing a 98-mph fastball into the shadows created by the late-afternoon sun at Dodger Stadium.

Jackson, who had singled and walked in four previous trips to the plate, lined the ball toward the hole between first and second.

"I saw it off the bat, but then I lost it in the stands," Broxton said. "I heard it. He hit it hard."

Garciaparra launched himself off the ground, his left hand -- the glove hand -- extended as far as it could go. Improbably, impossibly, he caught the ball, its white cover gleaming against the brown leather as he plummeted face-first to the dirt.

Improbably, impossibly, the Dodgers held on for a 5-3 victory Sunday, extending their lead over Arizona to 1 1/2 games and increasing their winning streak to eight.

"That's baseball," said Garciaparra, who thrust his glove skyward in elation while the Diamondbacks walked off the field with stunned expressions.

"You can't explain it. You can't figure it out. You find somebody who does and I'll call him a liar."

The team that couldn't win a game from Aug. 22 to Aug. 29, dropping eight in a row, now can't lose.

The team that fell 4 1/2 games behind the Diamondbacks after a loss at Phoenix on Aug. 29 has made up six games in the standings in nine days and is a game ahead of Arizona in the All-Important Loss Column.

Explain that.

Impossible.

"We were pretty down a week ago Friday, when we lost and found ourselves five back on the loss side," Torre said. "We just had to see what we had and if we could bounce back.

"It's pretty incredible to expect to take those eight losses and turn it around."

Yes, the weakness of the NL West has allowed the Dodgers to make up a lot of ground. They've benefited from the synchronized nose-dives of the Diamondbacks' top two starters, Dan Haren and Brandon Webb, and they outscored Arizona, 19-5, in sweeping the three-game series here.

And yes, the Dodgers remain far from perfect. They struck out 12 times Sunday, 11 of those in five innings against rookie Max Scherzer. It's nothing short of mind-boggling that they're leading the division -- any division -- with a middle-infield combination of Blake DeWitt at second and Angel Berroa at short.

But here they are with 19 games left in the season, standing on top of the heap, gaining ground and confidence while they pull off improbable feats such as Garciaparra's catch almost every day.

"A nice way to end the game. A good way," James Loney said.

"That's the thing about this team. We have the depth with pinch-hitters, the bullpen, everything."

Loney somehow managed to maintain a serious expression while he proclaimed that he deserved the credit for the spectacular catch by Garciaparra, who has not started a game since Aug. 29.

"I taught him that. I taught him how to dive like that," Loney said, not displaying even a hint of a smile. "The one thing that I taught him is how to make that play right there."

Russell Martin anticipated the play wouldn't be made.

"It looked like a hit all the way. He was laid-out flat off the ground," Martin said.

"He was ready for it. It looked like he wanted the ball hit to him. It was an unbelievable play by Nomar."

Believe it.

Just as the Dodgers never stopped believing they could be where they are today.

"That's why you go out there and play," Garciaparra said, "and you don't get too down when you drop eight like that and you don't get too high when you win eight. You've just got to continue going out there and playing hard."

The Dodgers have a creampuff schedule left: Their four remaining opponents are a combined 83 games below .500. The Diamondbacks have 20 games left and will face only one team that's above .500, the St. Louis Cardinals, in a four-game series.

The biggest potential pitfall the Dodgers face is that they've been terrible on the road and that they will start a 10-game trip tonight at San Diego.

But, like their eight-game losing streak, the Dodgers hope that was then and they can stay very much in the now.

"We can't worry about the past," Broxton said. "We've got to worry about tomorrow and go out and play hard."

And believe.

--

Helene Elliott can be reached at helene.elliott@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.

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