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T.J. SIMERS

Dodgers remain calm and cool

They have a losing record since the All-Star break, but you'd never know it by watching them.

August 17, 2009|T.J. SIMERS

FROM PHOENIX — So I'm all cranked up to trash the Choking Dogs when I arrive at the Dodgers' clubhouse Sunday, only to be greeted by Pitbull singing, "I Know You Want Me."

"Darn it," says Manager Joe Torre as he walks by, "they got my iPod."

The Dodgers are coming off one of their more unsettling losses this season, 13-16 since the All-Star break, squandering a nine-game lead on the field, and if everything breaks the right way for Colorado on Sunday, the day might end with the Rockies three games behind.

But singing along with Pitbull, it's all "ha ha" as far as the Dodgers view it.

Charlie Haeger, and I had never heard of him either, even though he will be the Dodgers' starting pitcher today, is using an emery board on his nails, while Matt Kemp is asking James McDonald to smell a candle he found in the hotel gift shop.

Manny Ramirez is opening one vitamin bottle after another, and then one supplement bottle after another and throwing pill after pill into his mouth.

"You shouldn't even be taking Flintstone vitamins the ways things are going for you," I tell him, and his mouth is too full to respond.

Juan Pierre is wearing a T-shirt with the words that pretty much describe the Dodgers' attitude: "A minor setback, a major comeback." He has worn it all weekend and now I understand why he's sitting alone in the dugout.

Hiroki Kuroda leaves the hospital and rejoins the team but will probably miss his next start. Torre says the Dodgers have Scott Elbert ready in the minors to replace him if necessary, which goes to show you they never needed Cliff Lee.

Ramon Troncoso is putting on his uniform, which means he might pitch, and how frightening is that? But no one seems to notice because it could be worse -- Jonathon Broxton might get dressed.

Whatever everyone's concerns elsewhere might be, there don't seem to be any in here, though, and Torre says, "I like that," while crediting Ramirez and Kemp with keeping the Dodgers pressure free.

"Win, lose or draw," Torre says, and while I wonder how many draws he's managed, he continues to gush about Kemp.

"We're seeing what Kemp is all about and what he does for this team," says Torre, hitting Kemp No. 8 in the lineup 21 times this season, seventh Friday night, cleanup Saturday and leadoff Sunday. "He's talented, dangerous and not afraid."

A few lockers down, Andre Ethier sits at peace, maybe one of the team's most intense players, and yet unmoved by recent disappointing results.

The case can be made that Ethier has been the Dodgers' offensive MVP to date, the same guy who had to prove he was better than Ricky Ledee, Marlon Anderson, Jose Cruz Jr. and Luis Gonzalez.

"Ha ha," as Pitbull puts it, but like so many others in Ethier's quest to get here, the Dodgers were slow to embrace the game's top pressure player this season. If folks think the Dodgers might choke, it's only because Ethier is not due up.

He has five walk-off hits this year, no one else in baseball has more than three, and Dodgers GM Ned Colletti made the trade for him. It's a good lesson for kids who think they cannot do the impossible.

One week on the job and Colletti knew he had to trade a fiery Milton Bradley, everyone in baseball knowing he had to trade a fiery Bradley, and still swinging a deal with Oakland's Billy Beane to land Ethier.

Brad Pitt is currently scheduled to play Beane in a movie, which makes you wonder who would play Colletti, Wally Cox unfortunately no longer with us.

Bradley was known for his temper, and yet it's Ethier who went through nine batting helmets last season, three so far this year, so frustrated at times with his own performance he sometimes just snaps off the earpiece.

"They said Bradley had problems," Ethier says with a grin.

"They never did a background check on me."

As intense as Either can be, it's what makes the Dodgers so formidable -- a wonderful complement to Kemp's and Ramirez's carefree attitudes.

And also a "contradiction," Torre says. "He's the nicest guy around. You watch him with fans, with children and then all of a sudden he turns into that person."

That person, as Torre says, reminds him of Paul O'Neill, "the heart and soul" of the Yankees during part of Torre's run in New York, and about as much praise as he can offer about anyone.

Ethier has to show a whole lot more consistency, Torre says, to pull right alongside O'Neill, but there he was again Sunday when the Dodgers needed a lift.

His three-run homer in the first inning, his team-leading 24th and the first of four hits on the afternoon, effectively ends any grand plans the sweep-minded Diamondbacks might've had.

"The good hitters hunt the situation and are willing to go for it," Colletti says in describing Ethier's knack of producing at just the right time.

Of course when you aren't even the best athlete in your own home -- his wife a former All-American gymnast -- it takes hard work, intensity and long hair to achieve such success.

"It's a Samson thing," says a shaggy Ethier, who also leads the Dodgers in RBIs. "The last two years once the season starts, I don't get my hair cut."

And so it goes for the Dodgers, a "ha ha" mix of whatever that won game No. 70 on Aug. 16 -- something they couldn't accomplish last year until Sept. 3.

Throw in losses by the Giants and Rockies, and the Dodgers' magic number to eliminate Colorado is 40 -- 39 to send the Giants packing.

And here I was ready to really let someone have it for choking, never dreaming I should have been focusing on Tiger Woods.

--

t.j.simers@latimes.com

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