Dodgers survived amazing season
From 2-13 stretch to wild four-homer ninth inning, LA saw it all
SAN FRANCISCO -- Whatever general manager Ned Colletti didn't know about the Dodgers club he took over last year, he could surmise from the 91 games it lost, so he cleaned house.
For the most part, he acquired players with vast postseason experience that is about to become a little bit more vast, with the Dodgers preparing for October bonus ball after a thrill ride of a September.
"I like to have as many people in the room who have been there before," Colletti said. "I put a lot of weight in players who've gone to the playoffs before. They know what it takes."
Of the players who partied in the Dodgers clubhouse after Saturday's clinching, 16 have done it before. As the Dodgers head to New York for their National League Division Series matchup with the Mets, Greg Maddux is the leader in that clubhouse with what will be 11 postseason appearances, one more than Kenny Lofton and four more than Rafael Furcal. Three Dodgers have won World Series -- starting pitchers Maddux, Derek Lowe and Brad Penny.
When a physically crippled Nomar Garciaparra can deliver two walk-off homers in the final two weeks, one coming after four consecutive ninth-inning home runs, or a club can rebound from what its manager called "a two-week All-Star break" by winning 17 of its next 18, what other explanation is there but the confidence of past success?
"The veteran presence we have here was unmatched last year," said Jeff Kent, who endorsed Colletti's hiring. "The veterans motivated and maintained the attitudes of the young kids. We had an emotional roller coaster this year. We had personnel turnover, big adjustments, but it's gratifying that everybody maintained it without the boat tipping over. We had the confidence of experience and the enthusiasm of youth. It was a good mix."
The veteran presence was by design. The kids were out of necessity. Russell Martin became a fixture behind the plate, Andre Ethier was an immediate payoff for the Milton Bradley trade by stabilizing left field until a late-season fade, Jonathan Broxton became the setup man for 36-year-old rookie Japanese closer Takashi Saito.
The Dodgers had to win six consecutive games for the right to celebrate a clinching on the next-to-last day of the regular season.
"We peaked at the right time," said manager Grady Little. "We haven't played this well all season."
Kent doesn't believe there will be a letdown.
"One thing about this team, it's able to turn the page," he said. "I don't believe we have the character to be arrogant."
For all the knocks Dodgers fans take about arriving late and leaving early, they turned out in record numbers this year -- 3.75 million -- they still love their grilled Dodger Dogs and they get pretty fired up when the games matter.
They will fill 44-year-old Dodger Stadium with 56,000 strong and it will rock, providing a serious home-field advantage. That's the way it was back in the 1980s, when players took to calling their fans "The 10th Man."
The team-owned venue, built by late owner Walter O'Malley at a cost of $13 million, underwent a $6 million restoration before the 2006 season that included replacing every seat in the stadium, with a return to the original pastel color scheme.
As for the dimensions, Dodger Stadium remains pretty much unchanged over the years from its classic debut, although much of the foul territory disappeared two years ago when 1,600 baseline private box seats were added down both foul lines and the dugouts were moved 20 feet closer to the playing field.
Generally, Dodger Stadium is known to be a pitchers' park, but the ball tends to fly during day games. There has never been a postseason rainout in Dodger Stadium history. In fact, the average rainfall total for October in Los Angeles is 0.21 inches.
But do they have the talent to be champions?
The starting rotation lacked a true ace but had two great halves turned in, first by All-Star Game starter Brad Penny, then in the stretch by Derek Lowe. Jae Seo and Odalis Perez were washouts who were turned out and Mark Hendrickson wasn't up to the demands of a pennant race, but the Dodgers were again rescued by kids like Chad Billingsley and Hong-Chih Kuo.
Then there is Maddux, the 40-year-old kid whose acquisition was labeled by some, including Dodgers broadcaster Charley Steiner, the defining moment of the season, saying the young pitchers studied the future Hall of Famer as if he was "the King Tut exhibit."
Maddux, who figures to start Game 3 and might be asked to pitch on three days' rest -- as he did in Saturday's clincher -- believes the Dodgers are primed to keep it going.
"We've got guys who come to fight," he said. "And the rookies act like rookies, not like they've been around for 10 years. There's a lot of mutual respect and it carries over to the field. The team plays defense and the coaches are very professional."
The offense lacked a focal point and a power source, with nobody hitting more than 20 homers and the club next-to-last in the league. But J.D. Drew stayed healthy and Rafael Furcal heated up after a slow start to be the most effective leadoff catalyst the Dodgers have had since Davey Lopes.
It's easy to point to the one month coming out of the All-Star break as the turning point in the Dodgers' season -- actually, two turning points. It's not as easy, however, to explain it.
They went into the break in second place, two games behind San Diego. They came out of the break and were swept in a four-game series in St. Louis and proceeded to lose 13 of 14, tumbling into last place, 7 1/2 games back.
Thursday, July 27 was a day off at home and a different Dodgers team reported to the ballpark on July 28 for a game against the Washington Nationals. A 13-1 victory sent the Dodgers on a historic spree, propelling them from worst to first in less than two weeks.
Only in the NL West could a last-place team win two consecutive games and have its manager say, "Right now, we're 2-13 and we're on a roll."
When the roll was over, the Dodgers had won 17 of 18.
Coinciding with the turnaround was a flurry of roster decisions. Perez left, Elmer Dessens arrived. Starter Brett Tomko returned from injury as a reliever. Danys Baez, who was unreliable when asked to take over as closer, was sent to Atlanta for promising infielder Wilson Betemit. When those moves were over, every reliever who opened the season in the Dodgers bullpen was no longer in the Dodgers bullpen.
Maddux cost Gold Glove shortstop Cesar Izturis, who was replaced by Julio Lugo from Tampa Bay, costing the club prized prospect Joel Guzman. The Lugo acquisition was a head-scratcher to some, but Colletti wanted depth because Kent was out with an oblique strain.
Injuries were a factor throughout the Dodgers' season, beginning with the loss of Eric Gagne, who needed a second elbow operation in June and, while rehabilitating from it, blew out a disk and had back surgery. The two operations equaled his innings pitched. His loss was compounded when Yhency Brazoban, last year's closer, tore up his elbow and needed season-ending Tommy John surgery.
Garciaparra, although a comeback of the year candidate, was hurt three times and gutted out the stretch run despite a painful oblique strain, providing a couple of walk-off homers in miraculous wins. Kent was given a contract extension in the spring, but he was robbed of power by several nagging injuries and had his worst production numbers in more than a decade.
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.