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BILL PLASCHKE

Dodgers finally come to play

October 04, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

Sick of staring at it, the Dodgers became it, pouring themselves across Chavez Ravine on Saturday night like the champagne that has haunted them.

Clayton Kershaw popped. Casey Blake bubbled. Mark Loretta sprayed. An entire dugout of bouncing blue poured into the cool night awash in intoxicating relief.

On their sixth day of trying, the Dodgers have finally traded chokes for corks, defeating the Colorado Rockies, 5-0, on Saturday night to clinch their second consecutive National League West championship.

It wasn't pretty, but it was finally a party, the beleaguered offense finding five runs in the seventh inning to break a scoreless tie in grinding fashion.

By the time the desperate push ended -- the magic number disappearing just one game before the season did -- even Manny Ramirez had driven in a run.

By the time the game ended, Jonathan Broxton was pumping his fist on the mound, Andre Ethier was bouncing with the final out in right field, and a sold-out Dodger Stadium crowd was standing and dancing and shaking the place crazy.

Nearly a week late, but, at least to the folks here Saturday, it felt right on time.

"You have to have a lot of little boy in you to play this game, and we showed it tonight," Manager Joe Torre said.

That seventh inning was indeed all little boy, kids pushing and shoving and forcing their way to the Dodgers second consecutive West title for the first time since 1977-78.

A guy with a sore hamstring motored into second base -- Blake started the rally by lining a ball into center field and taking second on an error.

A guy with four sacrifice bunts all season laid down one more -- James Loney moved him to second.

A guy who hadn't batted in six days singled to drive in a run -- Ronnie Belliard grounded a ball under first baseman Todd Helton's glove.

A guy with two RBIs since Aug. 15 doubled to drive in another one -- Mark Loretta knocked a ball into the right-center field gap.

Then -- who else? -- Juan Pierre singled to drive in a third run.

The rally was so crazy, even Ramirez ended it by knocking in the fifth run, lining a single to right field in answer to the first chants of "Man-ny" heard in a couple of weeks.

"They show up, they show up," Torre said. "That's what they've done all year."

Then, as they did last year, they returned to the field during their postgame celebration to dance and spray champagne on the fans.

"You guys are the best fans in the whole world . . . we're going to try to bring back the championship," shouted Ramirez into a microphone. "I love L.A."

The good news for Dodgers fans is that, by virtue of also clinching the best record in the league with one game remaining, they will have home-field advantage throughout the NL playoffs.

The bad news is, in the first-round, five-game divisional playoffs, they must play the St. Louis Cardinals.

Yes, the Cardinals are also staggering, losing five of six games since they clinched the Central Division title.

But in seven games against the Cardinals this season, the Dodgers are 2-5 and have been outscored, 31-19.

Also, in four of those games, the Cardinals' best two starting pitchers have dominated.

Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright -- the Cardinals' first two starters in the series that begins at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday -- combined to give up five runs in 30 innings for a 1.50 earned-run average.

If the Dodgers can't beat them, they can't win the series.

"The postseason is all about pitching," Torre reminded often this week.

Although their rotation has been unsettled, the Dodgers can at least counter with Kershaw, who gave up only two runs in 11 2/3 innings against the Cardinals.

If Saturday was any indication, the kid is ready.

He started the game by striking out the first five Rockies and nine of the first 11.

He struck out guys with heated fastballs and looping sliders, ranging from 96 mph to 83 mph.

He struck out guys so foolishly, several Rockies walked away from the plate as the final strike was hitting the mitt.

Kershaw finished with 10 strikeouts in six innings so, yeah, he's probably ready.

"It's fun . . . it's awesome. . . . I don't know what to say,"' said the 21-year-old, who seems ready.

Are the other Dodgers?

Who knows? But owner Frank McCourt made it clear afterward that just making the playoffs is not enough.

"It was 31 years in coming, but I think we're finally back," McCourt said. "It's just a step, but now we've got to go the distance."

The Dodgers will have to do it with a struggling Ramirez and Ethier, with a rotation missing playoff-tested Hiroki Kuroda, and with the memories of an awful last week still in their minds.

But they will attempt to do with the knowledge gained from last season's NL Championship Series loss to eventual World Series champion Philadelphia, a series that found the Dodgers' toughness lacking.

A series that cannot be repeated if the Dodgers want to take that next step.

"It's the secret to life, keep grinding, keep persisting," McCourt said.

"Now let's see. Let's see what we learned in Philadelphia last year. Now the real season begins."

--

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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