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Finally! Dodgers clinch National League West title

After five failed attempts to bag the honor, they beat the Rockies and former Manager Jim Tracy X-X. The final stretch, like much of the season, wasn't easy.

October 04, 2009|Dylan Hernandez

After 159 games and four failed attempts to clinch the National League West title, it came down to this for the Dodgers: in a final homestand against the red-hot Colorado Rockies managed by a guy who once managed them, win one game.

That's all. One.

Going into Friday's game as cold at the plate as they ever have been, they came close but failed again.

Not on Saturday.

With a strong pitching performance by 21-year-old Clayton Kershaw, who had 10 strikeouts over six innings, the team that led the West all season finally won it for good, beating the Rockies and Manager Jim Tracy 5-0.

But the road to this final homestand, like much of this season, has not been easy, especially after last year's crowd-dazzling, late-season heroics by Manny Ramirez that led them into the playoffs.

It was, in fact, this force of power and personality that pushed the Dodgers last winter and part of the spring to woo and re-sign Ramirez to a two-year contract. They made him the heart of their marketing campaign. They plastered his face on billboards and renamed a section of field-level seats at Dodger Stadium in his honor -- Mannywood.

Then, he was gone.

Exiled for 50 games for violating baseball's drug policy, Ramirez returned but not as the force that fired up the Dodgers' fan base with such a fury that budget-conscious owner Frank McCourt was persuaded to part with $45 million to retain him.

But something happened over the course of Ramirez's suspension. The Dodgers learned they could win without him. Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp found out that they could hit without him, although the past week seemed to test the entire lineup.

With Saturday's victory, the Dodgers finally completed their transformation from a one-man show into something more durable.

After failing to beat the lowly Pirates in Pittsburgh, and the struggling Padres in San Diego, it felt good to celebrate.

"We were on the brink last Sunday against Pittsburgh," Manager Joe Torre said after the game. "I'm just glad Brox [Jonathan Broxton] was on the mound tonight to finish it off.

"It never gets old," he said of winning a division.

"I'm proud of how they persevered," General Manager Ned Colletti said last weekend, not realizing how those words would grow by Saturday. "Every team goes through a lot. We had our own challenges this year, and they stuck together and played together and supported each other."

Five months ago, Ramirez's teammates, after learning of his suspension, said they knew they could do this, to win without their one-man show. Still, there was doubt.

"It's not one player that makes a team," catcher Russell Martin said. "In that case, that one player makes the team a lot better when he's in the lineup for sure. You have to give it up mostly to Juan Pierre. He picked up the slack there. He filled that void."

Pierre used to be a routine target for fans who thought he didn't merit his five-year, $44-million contract. Banished to the bench last season, exiled in a different way, he reemerged in Ramirez's spot and won praise for the way he played left field, ran the bases, swung the bat and showed heart. The team and fans embraced him as never before.

The Dodgers were 29-21 while Ramirez was out and increased their lead in the division from 6 1/2 games to 7 1/2 .

"If we falter at that point in time, who knows if we would have ever gotten back up," Colletti said. "But we never did."

Pierre adequately replaced Ramirez, and Ethier and Kemp arguably supplanted him as the team's best hitters.

The most enduring images of Ethier in seasons past were of him slamming his helmet or bat in fits of frustration. This season, he turned himself into a folk hero of Dodgertown, less for hitting 31 home runs and driving in 106 runs, and more for ending six games with winning hits, including four on home runs.

"What is there to make sense of?" Ethier said. "It happens that I keep coming up with the game on the line."

Dramatic finishes became common. The Dodgers won eight games when trailing after the seventh inning, and are 12-9 in extra-inning contests.

Kemp also developed a reputation as a late-game threat, driving in 10 extra-inning runs.

But it is his consistency that surprised even Torre. If Kemp finishes the season with a .300 average or higher -- he's batting .298 -- he will become the first player in franchise history to bat .300, hit 25 home runs (he has 26), drive in 100 runs (he has 101) and steal 30 bases (he has 34).

The production of Ethier and Kemp offset the down years by Martin, a two-time All-Star, and shortstop Rafael Furcal, who was re-signed last winter to a three-year, $30-million contract.

Ethier and Kemp were far from the only ones who exceeded expectations.

The bullpen outdid them.

The Dodgers' relievers went into camp as a group of no-names and remain that way, save for, perhaps, Jonathan Broxton. They lead all of baseball in earned-run average and innings pitched.

And the Dodgers have needed them.

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