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Dodgers had no trade deficits

Deals for Blake and Ramirez helped turn them into division champions after a rocky start.

September 27, 2008|Dylan Hernandez | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO -- Andre Ethier covered his wide-open mouth. James Loney had bags under his eyes. Blake DeWitt slumped over in his chair and put his hands over his face.

Less than 24 hours removed from a champagne-drenched celebration at Dodger Stadium that Manny Ramirez said was "something you can't describe," there was no music in the visiting clubhouse at AT&T Park that housed the newly crowned champions of the National League West.

"I know people said we celebrated hard," Ethier said, "but we went through a lot to get here."

They were met by a new manager at the start of spring training. They received almost no production out of Andruw Jones, their $36.2-million free-agent acquisition. They endured the growing pains of their young players. They played without Rafael Furcal, Brad Penny, Takashi Saito, Jeff Kent and Nomar Garciaparra for extended periods and had players miss 1,186 man-games through Thursday.

But they traded for Ramirez and Casey Blake, they loosened up and they won 18 of their 23 games leading up to the elimination of second-place Arizona.

"It's been a rocky road," Manager Joe Torre said. "There have been a lot of things that have happened here."

Starting in the winter.

For Ethier, the season didn't begin on opening day or on the first day of spring training. It started the day he heard Grady Little was no longer his manager.

"Everyone in the off-season stays away from this game," Ethier said. "I don't pick up a bat or ball until Jan. 1. I wouldn't have been thinking about next season until January, but I found myself watching 'SportsCenter.' It made it a shorter off-season."

The team was put in the hands of Manager Joe Torre and his top lieutenant from New York, third base coach Larry Bowa.

Ethier said he and the team's other young players suddenly didn't know where they stood in the eyes of a manager who was in the American League the previous season and knew nothing about them. Though Torre won four World Series titles and reached the postseason in each of his 12 seasons with the Yankees, it could take time for Bowa and him to earn the trust of their new players.

"There were a lot of guys who had things set in their minds," Bowa said. "They thought they have all the answers. To get to another level, you have to break that barrier. At first, it was hard."

The confluence of inexperience and new leadership wasn't the only obstacle.

Jones, signed to provide power in the middle of the lineup, couldn't hit. The disabled list grew, forcing Torre to move players around.

DeWitt, who had never played above double A, was their opening-day third baseman. Jonathan Broxton had to be moved into a closing role. They acquired Angel Berroa and Pablo Ozuna to plug holes in the middle of the infield. With Furcal out, Garciaparra became the Dodgers' everyday shortstop for two weeks in August. When Garciaparra's body didn't hold up, the role became Berroa's again. DeWitt, sent down to triple A in late July, was back in the majors a month later, this time as Kent's replacement at second base.

"Strange year," DeWitt said. "You have to be ready for anything."

Outstanding pitching by a staff anchored by Derek Lowe and Chad Billingsley was enough to keep the Dodgers close to the Diamondbacks, whom they trailed by as many as seven games in April. At the All-Star break, the Dodgers were a game out of first place.

In Torre's eyes, the Dodgers' season made a turn for the better on July 26, the day they acquired third baseman Blake. Five days later, they landed the most significant midseason addition in their history when they acquired Ramirez in a three-way deal involving Boston and Pittsburgh.

Around this time, Bowa said he was sensing that the kids were starting to believe what he and Torre were preaching. The 35-year-old Blake's demeanor reinforced that.

"Casey Blake was big for us," Torre said of Blake, who didn't become a full-time big league player until he was 29. "A lot of times, you get leadership not out of what he says, but about what he does."

Ramirez had an even greater influence, hitting 17 home runs and driving in 53 runs in his first 50 games as a Dodger and introducing music into what was once a silent clubhouse.

They ended a season-long eight-game losing streak in Arizona on the final weekend of August, beating All-Stars Dan Haren and Brandon Webb on consecutive days and doing the same a week later in Los Angeles. Their victory over Webb on Sept. 6 moved the Dodgers into first place.

They never looked back and didn't they lose consecutive games in the 23 games leading up to their coronation.

"To me," Torre said, "that was the best stat, that we didn't lose an edge over the last couple of weeks."

At least until they took a brief sigh of relief Friday.

--

dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

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