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BILL PLASCHKE

Hand must be improved for playoffs

July 26, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

It means everything, this wonderful Dodgers buzz rocking our city, partying around the Kemp fire, standing Pierre-vations, the O-Dog days of summer.

And it means nothing.

In baseball, as in poker, the best hand never appears until the final card, and although the Dodgers are loaded, they desperately need that one and only flip that will complete them.

Yeah, an ace.

The Dodgers have been properly built for the regular season but remain an unfinished product for the postseason, their bundles of hitting and energy and patience not enough to overcome the one thing that can fashion it all into a ring.

Yeah, an ace.

There is power here, there is speed here, there is brashness and belief and as much bullpen intensity as bullpen ivy.

But there is no ace here. There is no big-nerve, cold-staring starting pitcher here.

There is nobody who will take the mound on a chilly fall night and refuse to leave until morning. There is nobody who will grab the ball in October and refuse to give it up until November.

There is no Cole Hamels, no Josh Beckett, no David Wells.

Seven of the last 11 world champions began the World Series with a winning performance of at least seven innings from their aces.

Chad Billingsley can be guaranteed to do that? After melting down in the last championship series? After averaging 6 1/3 innings per start in the more relaxed regular season?

During the last nine seasons, no world champion has had a starting pitching staff that was ranked lower than ninth in the league in innings pitched.

The Dodgers' starters currently rank 14th.

During that same time, no world championship bullpen was ranked in the top 10 in its league in innings pitched.

The Dodgers' bullpen currently ranks second.

You win regular-season titles by using dozens of arms, but you win championships with one, a guy who can carry the load and the pressure and the strain.

Yeah, an ace.

"You have that guy, and it affects everyone else on the staff, eases things for everyone, allows them to be who they are," said Manager Joe Torre.

Torre can't say it, but, as of yet, the Dodgers don't have that ace.

With more experience, it could eventually be Clayton Kershaw. With more focus and fire, it could eventually be Billingsley.

But right now, they are a pitching staff filled only with decent arms and daring souls and just enough heat to meld together the next two months.

They are a pitching staff that can lead the Dodgers to the league's best record, but you know what that guarantees them? Ask the other best teams from the last 15 years, and duck, as only one of them actually won a World Series.

The Dodgers have a pitching staff built for summer, not for autumn. They don't even have a pitching staff as solid as the one from last autumn.

Yeah, an ace.

"I've been thinking and talking about this since last January," said General Manager Ned Colletti. "We need to have enough pitching."

In this final week before the non-waiver trading deadline, that thinking and talking will be incessant, insistent and imperative.

Currently the best gamble in baseball, the Dodgers need to show up next weekend with a new veteran starting pitcher, or all bets are off.

"Right now this team is special, very special; it reminds me of some of those really good teams I played for in Atlanta," said shortstop Rafael Furcal. "But when you get to October, it's a different story, you need one or two big starting pitchers to finish it off."

Roy Halladay? Cliff Lee? Jarrod Washburn? Whatever it takes, here's hoping Colletti can figure out a way to do it.

No, you don't trade Kershaw and, even though it's tempting, you don't trade a 24-year-old Billingsley.

And, yes, it's tough to sell anyone on prospects when most scouts believe that most great Dodgers prospects are already at the major league level.

But, hey, this is an organization that somehow acquired Manny Ramirez for nothing, so surely there is something they can figure out.

"We have great arms, but we know that in the postseason, every pitch is magnified to the nth degree, the pressure is huge, and we need to rise to that level," Colletti said.

Colletti might have to settle for a veteran reliever to ease the burden on the overtaxed bullpen, but statistically that won't be enough. In the postseason, bullpens are only as heroic as the starter.

Given his experience, the man here should be Billingsley, but he still needs to prove he has emotionally recovered from last fall's two awful starts against the Philadelphia Phillies, when he gave up 10 earned runs in five innings.

Remember that? All the momentum the Dodgers built in a divisional series sweep of the Chicago Cubs was wiped away with one Brett Myers pitch behind Manny Ramirez's behind.

No Dodgers starter stood up then. They need somebody to stand up now. They need somebody to take the mound this October and stalk it, stomp it, own it, because, as certain as browning leaves and buffeting winds, another fight is coming.

Yeah, an ace.

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bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/BillPlaschke

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

ACES ON THE TRADING BLOCK?

Cliff Lee is one of three veteran American League pitchers who may be dealt to a contending team before the July 31 trade deadline.

*--* Name Team W L ERA IP BB SO HR/A Avg./A Roy Halladay Toronto Blue 11 3 2.62 141 20 123 10 243 Jays Cliff Lee Cleveland 6 9 3.17 145 33 103 10 280 Indians Jarrod Seattle 8 6 2.71 126 30 78 11 224 Washburn Mariners *--*

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