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BASEBALL PLAYOFFS

Dodgers' kids are growing up

Clayton Kershaw, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier are major contributors.

October 15, 2009|BEN BOLCH | ON THE DODGERS

Kids, they grow up so fast these days.

It was only a year ago that Dodgers youngsters Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp & Co. essentially played freeze tag against the Philadelphia Phillies in the National League Championship Series.

Ethier and Kemp combined for zero home runs and runs batted in. Closer Jonathan Broxton surrendered a tiebreaking, two-run home run in the eighth inning of a Game 4 loss. Clayton Kershaw barely registered a blip with two innings of relief.

Now it seems the lads have graduated to a more grown-up pursuit: capture the flag.

Kershaw, 21, was named the starter for Game 1 of the Dodgers' NLCS rematch against the Phillies today at Dodger Stadium. Broxton has provided lockdown relief from the regular season through the playoffs. Ethier and Kemp helped power the Dodgers to a three-game sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL division series.

These Dodgers are about much more than Manny Ramirez. "Last year, it was if Manny doesn't hit, we don't win," third base coach Larry Bowa said. "Now if Manny goes 0 for 4, we still think we can win."

That's in large part because Ethier and Kemp have emerged as two of the game's most clutch hitters. Ethier led the major leagues with six walk-off hits and Kemp had 10 RBIs in extra innings, the most in baseball.

"These two kids were huge," Manager Joe Torre said.

Ethier and Kemp combined for 57 homers and 207 RBIs during the regular season, helping the Dodgers withstand the loss of Ramirez, who was suspended for 50 games for violating baseball's drug policy.

The Dodgers, who have the third-best home record in the league during the regular season, open this year's series with two games at Dodger Stadium. Torre opted to go with Kershaw as his Game 1 starter after the left-hander pitched six scoreless innings in the Dodgers' division-clinching victory over Colorado and followed that with 6 2/3 strong innings in Game 2 of the division series.

"He's definitely older than what he is baseball-wise," Kemp said of Kershaw, who had an 8-8 record but compiled a 2.79 earned-run average in 30 regular-season starts. "Nothing really gets to him, so I'm excited he's our No. 1 starter."

Kemp said the familiarity of playing in the NLCS would help him avoid the temptation to try to be a hero in every at-bat.

"This go-around, I know how to calm myself down a little bit more and not try to do too much," he said.

Ethier, who hit .227 in the NLCS last year, said he also anticipated being more relaxed.

"But at the same time," he said, "there has to be a sense of urgency and a sense of getting things done. You can't relax too much. You can't get too complacent with where you're at just because you've been here before."

Torre said he noticed "an enormous difference" in Kemp, 25, and Ethier, 27, who went into the 2008 season having to battle Andruw Jones and Juan Pierre for starting spots.

Among the younger Dodgers, Bowa said Kemp had matured the most.

"He knows what he has to do at the plate," Bowa said of the right fielder, who became the first Dodger with at least 25 homers, 100 RBIs and 30 stolen bases in a season. "He doesn't just go up there and swing at anything. He has a game plan."

Said Torre: "This year he lets it go quicker, and that to me is a huge difference where he doesn't let his next inning or next at-bat be affected by something that went wrong. . . . He certainly has come quicker than I ever expected him to."

The Phillies also have made changes since last year, adding ace left-hander Cliff Lee, veteran pitcher Pedro Martinez and left fielder Raul Ibanez.

But the Dodgers' transformation largely involves the same cast of core players.

"Last year we leaned on Manny a lot," Bowa said. "We don't believe that now. We just believe that we have a lineup where somebody different can contribute every day."

No matter their age.

--

ben.bolch@latimes.com

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