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KURT STREETER

The unflappable Torre makes a pretty good Zen master himself

August 13, 2009|KURT STREETER

A series like this one, a sloggy stretch of season like this one, is precisely when you need Joe Torre. Why paying him all those millions to come west made sense. Why, even after a heartbreaking, sweep-denying loss against the Giants on Wednesday afternoon, there's no reason for fear and loathing in Dodgersland.

Torre has been there, done that. He has always kept his head. Always, since the mid-1990s and New York at least, had a knack for keeping matters clear and simple during times like these.

"Let's keep our perspective," Torre reminded his team before they flew to San Francisco on Sunday. Think about how many teams would love to be in our position.

Nobody knows how the season will play out -- even Torre says there's no guarantee his team has enough depth to win a pennant -- but during this series his calm resolve clearly rubbed off.

"When Mr. Torre speaks, well, we listen," says Orlando Hudson. "This isn't Mr. Torre's first time at the rodeo, after all. Oh, man, it'd be different with a lot of other managers. Coming into a series like this, the way we've been going, with a lot of other managers it would be panic time."

Indeed, after all those weeks with baseball's best record, the Dodgers came here with a solid but shrinking divisional lead, winners of five out of their last 15.

Panic time? For some.

But roughhouse wins on Monday and Tuesday night soothed the nerves, reminded this team what it can be. No doubt Wednesday's 4-2, 10-inning, walk-off homer loss to the Giants and Tim Lincecum -- that long-locked wizard who shape-shifts into Cy Young -- put a dent in things. Especially since the game exposed, again, the Dodgers' weakness: a pitching staff held together with baling wire.

But despite this defeat, the Dodgers feel as if they are heading in the right direction again.

Like all in his position, Torre can certainly be criticized. Some say he's wearing out his pitchers; he's micromanaging; he fumbles key decisions.

The critics will never go away. It's the nature of our world now. But what will also never go away is Torre's greatest attribute, the prime reason the Dodgers have only a sliver of a chance of a meltdown: absolute unflappability.

Phil Jackson is supposed to be the Zen coach. But he makes a show of it. Torre, without trying, probably without even knowing it, is actually more Zen than Phil. He doesn't need to burn incense in the clubhouse and write a book about mystic ground balls.

Living in the sweet center of calm? Torre to the core. It's woven deep and needed now, during the doubtful stretch of gloom that all championship teams must overcome.

Watch him in the clubhouse. As the players dress and prep, Torre occasionally walks slowly through the mix, popping by a locker to deliver a short reminder to Ramirez or Martin, Kemp or Pierre. There's no rush, no hurry, no tension, no showiness, nothing forced.

"He's never showed us there's anything to worry about, through all of these days," Hudson says. "That matters to us."

It's the same in the dugout, before Wednesday's game. Torre speaks for 20 minutes. Recurrent themes emerge. He mentions the words patience and consistency more than a dozen times. He preaches the long view. He talks about effort and energy as much as winning. His expression changes, but only barely.

"I just happen to have that stone face," he says. "Honestly though, I have a lot of jumpiness inside. The one good thing -- even though the jumpiness is going on I can always think clearly. Always. . . ."

He speaks of edging toward the end of the season with injuries, sudden competition and a losing last few weeks. He assures there's no reason to fret.

"I'm finding myself talking about the same things I talked about with New York," he says. "The only thing I try to do is preach about the small things right now. Think small. What I try to do is say, 'Let's keep this reasonable. Don't ask yourself to do the unreasonable.' "

Finally, he recounts pulling together the Dodgers after that last painful weekend against Atlanta. "Teams would love to switch places with you," he told them. "Even though we lost three in a row and we don't feel good about this, let's not get bent out of shape here. Let's just rein it in a little bit. Let's keep our perspective."

And so we have Monday and Tuesday's wins. And we have Wednesday's ninth inning; Lincecum one strike from ending matters. Rafael Furcal takes second base. Andre Ethier knocks him home. It was one run, a small thing, but a victory was nearly stolen.

Let's keep our perspective. Maybe it's easy to say when you have a big payroll and Manny Ramirez. Maybe it's easy when you still lead by a week. But these are the toughest of days. Every season, they make mortals of almost all teams.

"What a series," says the L.A. manager, sitting in the clubhouse after the loss, unfazed. "The perseverance and determination this team just showed, I'll be perfectly satisfied with that kind of play the rest of the way down the stretch."

It might not be good enough. Let's be clear. But in these hot and sloggy and uneven days, while winning in 2009 remains a dream very much within reach, you want Joe Torre guiding the ship.

--

kurt.streeter@latimes.com

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