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Tactical Alert

Torre's return to National League with Dodgers has presented new, sometimes unexpected strategic challenges, and his style is still evolving. It's sure not as easy as managing Yankees.

September 23, 2008|Dylan Hernandez | Times Staff Writer

From the time the Dodgers opened spring training, Joe Torre said he knew his move to Los Angeles would require him to work more than he had in the past -- and it wasn't only because of the lessons he would have to impart to a club much younger than the one he led in New York.

He was moving back to the National League, where he spent his first 15 seasons as a manager.

Torre has often described his first season with the Dodgers as frustrating at times, rewarding at others. The $13-million manager recently added another description: stimulating.

In his 12 seasons with the Yankees, Torre built his reputation on his ability to manage the egos on baseball's most expensive team. Here, largely because there is no designated hitter, Torre is shouldering an increased workload.

"It's more challenging," Torre said.

And sometimes sickening. Like on Aug. 13, when the Dodgers were at home against the Philadelphia Phillies and the score was tied, 6-6, heading into the ninth. Shortstop Angel Berroa and catcher Danny Ardoin were the only remaining bench players.

Torre called Jonathan Broxton out of the bullpen and took out the player who had been the penultimate hitter in the previous inning.

No big deal, right? Not quite.

The hitter he replaced was Manny Ramirez.

"That was the toughest decision of the year for me right there," Torre said.

The move worked out, as Broxton put up a zero and Nomar Garciaparra ended the game in the bottom of the ninth with a walk-off home run. But Torre was aware that the switch could have backfired if the game had gone into extra innings.

"In this league, there are more of those choices," he said. "In the American League, you take a pitcher out when you think he's tired."

Torre had a sub-.500 record as a manager until he went to the Yankees, but third base coach Larry Bowa went so far as to call him "way underrated." Also Torre's top lieutenant in New York, Bowa was considered one of the game's top strategists when he managed in Philadelphia and San Diego.

"He's knowledgeable about what he's doing," said Bowa, who is among the coaches Torre frequently consults during games. "Sometimes that gets lost when you're with a team like the Yankees because he had seven, eight guys who were studs. You don't pinch-hit with them. In the American League, you could go two weeks without using a bench player. In the National League, you couldn't go two days."

And if someone like Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi or Jorge Posada was at the plate, Bowa added, Torre wasn't about to put on a hit and run.

As for some of the curious-looking decisions Torre made early this season, Bowa said they were calculated byproducts of the team's limitations. If Torre is anything, Bowa said, it's adaptable.

In the pre-Manny days when the Dodgers couldn't hit, Torre was more inclined to pull his starting pitcher at the first sign of trouble. And even in the early stages of games, he often played the infield in when the other team had a man on third with fewer than two out.

"That's usually against what Joe likes to do," said Bowa, noting Torre's preference to protect against a big inning.

A lack of depth on the bench posed an entirely different set of challenges.

Over the stretch last month when Torre started 35-year-old Garciaparra and 40-year-old Jeff Kent in the middle of the infield, two spots on the roster had to be set aside for their late-inning defensive replacements, Berroa and Pablo Ozuna.

Injuries further depleted the Dodgers' depth.

Out of a fear that Torre could run out of players, Bowa said, there were times when Torre let some players hit for themselves in situations in which he would have preferred using a pinch-hitter.

"He kept this team afloat," Bowa said.

Not that his decisions always work.

Six days ago in Pittsburgh, the Dodgers were tied, 7-7, and Scott Proctor, who had tossed a scoreless sixth inning, retired the first two batters of the seventh. With Nate McLouth coming up to hit, Torre opted to take out Proctor and put in left-hander Scott Elbert. The Pirates scored eight runs in that inning.

But Torre had a reason for pulling Proctor: Of McLouth's 26 home runs, 23 have been hit against right-handers.

"It's where the second-guessing comes in," Torre said. "I think that's what makes the game great, because everyone has an idea of what'd they do in a situation. In this league, there are more of those choices."

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dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Magic number

5 With Arizona's 4-2 win at St. Louis, this is the combination of Dodgers wins and Arizona losses that will clinch the NL West title. H: home games left. R: road games left

*--* NL WEST W L PCT GB H R DODGERS 81 75 519 -- 3 3 Arizona 79 77 506 2 3 3 *--*

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TONIGHT'S GAME

Dodgers vs. San Diego

* Dodger Stadium, 7, FSN Prime

* Wade LeBlanc (1-1) vs.

Chad Billingsley (15-10)

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