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There's a lot that can go wrong

September 19, 2008|Bill Plaschke

So they come home with nine games left, a 3 1/2 -game lead over the Arizona Diamondbacks, a division race won.

So if the Dodgers blow this one, it would be unthinkable, unimaginable, untenable.

But not unprecedented.

In 1982, the Dodgers came home with 10 games left, a three-game lead over the Atlanta Braves, and confidence brimming.

They lost six straight games.

The likes of Steve Garvey and Dusty Baker and Pedro Guerrero combined to score only 13 runs in those six games.

A pitching staff featuring Fernando Valenzuela, Jerry Reuss, Bob Welch and Steve Howe blew leads in five of those six games.

They needed to win the last game in San Francisco to finish in a first-place tie.

Now batting, Joe Morgan.

Twenty-six years later, one notable participant in that pennant race is still active in this pennant race. The Braves' manager was a guy named Joe Torre.

The fact that he's on the other side of this one should make cautious Dodgers fans feel a little better, but only a little.

If it could happen to a defending World Series champion Dodgers team, it can happen to one that hasn't won a playoff series in 20 years.

Those of us who have painfully witnessed those 20 years have a Vin-given right to fret.

Nine games left, and here's nine things that can go wrong.

Cory Wade's arm: After retiring 24 consecutive hitters, he looked tired Thursday, allowing hits to three consecutive Pirates in nearly blowing the game.

Wade has become Joe Torre's new Jeff Nelson, an important middle reliever who will be constantly used down the stretch, a kid who "wows" but also makes you wonder.

How many innings has he pitched this late in a season before?

Answer: None.

Chad Billingsley's legs: He has now pitched 45 2/3 innings more than he has ever pitched in a season, every throw placing him on new ground, and how long can he stand?

In his last two starts, he has given up eight runs in 10 2/3 innings.

If that happens in his next two starts, it will be the Dodgers who stumble.

Derek Lowe's mortality: As I understand it, that is the only thing keeping him from starting and pitching in each of the last nine games, right?

Darn.

Matt Kemp's mind: He has had a terrific summer as a good clubhouse citizen and emerging player.

But he still blunders on the bases -- his attempt to steal third with two out in the eighth inning and the score tied Thursday was a doozy.

And the more he struggles on the base paths, it seems the more he struggles at the plate. He has not hit a home run in nearly three weeks, with only two doubles and two runs batted in during that time.

It doesn't help that he is only four strikeouts shy of the Los Angeles record of 149 set by Billy Grabarkewitz 28 years ago.

A strikeout record is considered so psychologically damaging, some front offices bench players who are close to breaking one.

Um, the Dodgers can't afford to bench Matt Kemp.

Greg Maddux's umpire: He has two more starts and, let's face it, he survives only if the plate umpire allows him to survive.

He needs a generous strike zone. But, with the exception of the late Eric Gregg, umpires in big games generally have tight strike zones.

That is only one reason Maddux is a losing postseason pitcher, and an unreliable one in September.

Manny Ramirez's concentration: You never know. You just never know.

Ramirez's focus can be surreal or spotty, sometimes during the same at-bat, and often during important times of the season.

This is a guy who once batted .412 in the World Series for the Boston Red Sox . . . and also hit .056 in a division series for the Cleveland Indians.

Last month he went nine games without a homer, and the Dodgers won only one of those games.

Currently, he hasn't hit a homer in a week.

Russell Martin's throws: Players are increasingly running on a catcher who seems increasingly arm weary.

Martin has caught more games than anyone in baseball -- 143 -- and it shows.

He has thrown out only 22% of potential base-stealers, ranking 11th among 14 major league catchers with at least 100 games. This is compounded by some of the slow deliveries of the pitchers, particularly Jonathan Broxton.

With nothing to lose, the San Diego Padres and Giants will be running.

The bench's splinters: Nobody in the National League is more harmless off the bench in the late innings than the Dodgers.

They are last in the league with only one pinch-hit homer and 16 pinch-hit RBIs.

And if they tell you that this defense-oriented group will be bolstered soon by the veteran bats of Jeff Kent and Nomar Garciaparra, not so fast.

In the last four years in this unfamiliar situation, the two veterans have combined to go five for 26 as pinch-hitters with three RBIs and no extra-base hits.

Those cheating Giants: They stole the signals that led to the 1951 Shot Heard 'Round the World.

They drowned the base paths that rendered Maury Wills unable to run to a championship.

When they host the Dodgers on the season's final weekend, if a championship is still at stake, strange things will happen.

Now batting, Barry Bonds.

--

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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