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The Dodgers pitchers who live in infamy

Dodgers reliever Jonathan Broxton has joined an unfortunate fraternity that also includes Tom Niedenfuer, Terry Forster and Ralph Branca. At least he has a chance to redeem himself.

October 21, 2009|Dylan Hernandez

PHILADELPHIA — Jonathan Broxton descended to a place on Monday night visited by only a select group of players in Dodgers history.

Ralph Branca was there in 1951 when he gave up a pennant-winning three-run home run to Bobby Thomson in a series-deciding playoff game against the Giants that came to be known as the "Shot Heard 'Round the World."

Terry Forster was there on the final day of the 1982 regular season when he served up a home run to Joe Morgan that cost the Dodgers the National League West title.

And, of course, Tom Niedenfuer was there.

Twice.

The first time was in Game 5 of the 1985 NL Championship Series in St. Louis when he gave up a ninth-inning homer to the Cardinals' Ozzie Smith. Two days later, in Game 6 at Dodger Stadium, he gave up another ninth-inning home run -- this time to Jack Clark, which fueled a debate over Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda's decision to pitch to the first baseman.

But Niedenfuer noted that Broxton's case differs from the others in one significant way.

"If they can win the series and he can get two or three more saves, people will forget about it," Niedenfuer said by phone from his Florida home Tuesday. "He can redeem himself. I couldn't."

The Dodgers' season ended the day Clark took Niedenfuer deep. The home runs charged to Branca and Forster also decided season-ending games.

Niedenfuer knows what a hit like the two-out, two-run walk-off double Broxton gave up to Jimmy Rollins in the Dodgers' 5-4 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies in Game 4 of the NLCS could do to a career. Or a life.

"Relief pitching is definitely magnified in the playoffs," he said. "Ask Dennis Eckersley."

Eckersley, a Hall of Famer, is still remembered for the home run Kirk Gibson hit off him in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series.

Niedenfuer had one of his best seasons in 1985, posting 19 saves and a 2.71 earned-run average in 106 1/3 innings over 64 relief appearances. Then he gave up the home run to Smith that ended 2-2 ties in both that game and the series.

"Fluky," Niedenfuer said.

Smith hit only 28 home runs in 19 major league seasons, and none in the postseason other than the one Niedenfuer surrendered.

Lasorda called on Niedenfuer again in Game 6. Clark hit the first pitch deep into the left-field pavilion.

The three-run shot turned a 5-4 Dodgers lead into a 7-5 Cardinals victory, and St. Louis moved on to the World Series.

"That's the way it goes sometimes," Niedenfuer said.

The timing and perceived connections between the two home runs earned Niedenfuer a place in the dark chapters of Dodgers folklore.

Niedenfuer said the two home runs weren't linked in any way -- similar to Broxton's denying that his meltdown Monday had anything to do with the pinch-hit two-run home run he gave up in a loss to the Phillies in Game 4 of last year's NLCS. Yet for Broxton, there was a common denominator: Matt Stairs, who hit that Game 4 homer and who drew the walk Monday night that started the Phillies' comeback.

But in October, logic is skewed and the obvious is ignored, Niedenfuer said.

He noted that he had entered Game 6 in the seventh inning -- and struck out Clark the first time he faced him.

"How often do you see relievers face the same guy twice?" Niedenfuer asked.

Plus, Niedenfuer said, he was pitching on an empty tank.

The Dodgers' release of left-hander Steve Howe prompted Lasorda to use Niedenfuer more in the final months of the season. Niedenfuer's ERA over his 17 regular-season games in September and October was 5.70.

Niedenfuer also pointed out that if the Dodgers had won Game 6, they would have had to face 21-game winner John Tudor in Game 7.

Niedenfuer was never able to live down the back-to-back episodes. The emotional wounds kept him from watching that year's World Series, in which the Cardinals lost to Kansas City. Questions about the home runs persisted. Over the next two years, he said he used to hear taunts from the bleachers at Dodger Stadium.

Niedenfuer was traded to the Orioles in 1987. He last pitched in 1990 for the Cardinals and retired with a career ERA of 3.29 for 10 seasons.

"I wish I could've stayed" in Los Angeles, he said. "But when I was traded it was probably for the best. Fans never really let it go. It was always there."

Niedenfuer defended Broxton, pointing out that Broxton was an All-Star and pitched well in his three appearances in the division-series sweep of St. Louis. And had the Dodgers won Game 1 of the NLCS, he said, they could even be leading this series, something they had several chances to do, instead of being down three games to one.

"I wish fans realized that if you succeed nine out of 10 times and you don't succeed that 10th time, even if that 10th time is in a high-profile game, you're still successful," Niedenfuer said.

Time has healed Niedenfuer's wounds. Now 50, he lives in Florida with his wife, Judy Landers. They have two daughters, ages 18 and 20.

When he was at Dodger Stadium last week to watch Games 1 and 2, he said he was treated well by fans.

"Thanks for the memories," he said he was told. But Niedenfuer doesn't want Broxton to have to wait that long.

"I hope there's a difference," he said. "I hope he gets a chance. He still has one or two or three chances."

--

dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

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