Dodgers prove value of playoff pitching
Three LA starters shut down Cubs' high-powered offense
LOS ANGELES -- Looking at the Los Angeles Dodgers and thinking "84-78" turns out to be a major miscalculation.
The Dodgers stunned both the Chicago Cubs and the oddsmakers with a three-game sweep of their National League Division Series. The Cubs had the NL's best regular-season record. The Dodgers had the worst record of any postseason qualifier. In the end, so what?
"We're a different club now," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said.
That would be different as in better. Much, much better.
The regular season ended just one week ago, but the Dodgers' record is already hopelessly out of date. The only part of it you can count on now is 19-8 after Aug. 29. That's more nearly a reflection of who they are now, what they are now, how good they are now.
How did this happen? The popular explanation centers on the acquisition of Manny Ramirez. There is no doubt that future Hall of Famers are not often obtained just before the July 31 Trade Deadline. And there is no doubt that Manny has transformed the Dodgers' offense. But there is much more going on here.
Casey Blake's addition gives the Dodgers additional lineup depth, the kind of thing many NL clubs can only envy. And the return of Rafael Furcal at shortstop and at the top of the lineup is a major boost in both directions for the Dodgers.
Then you have the development of talented, young hitters into more mature, more selective, more patient hitters, the kind of hitters Torre was looking for in the first place. The Dodgers won Game 1 of this series largely because they managed to draw seven walks from Cubs starter Ryan Dempster in 4 2/3 innings.
On the flip side of that development, veteran players were moved out of regular positions by that young talent. But the veterans stepped aside graciously.
"They made my life a lot easier to write a lineup without their names in it," Torre said.
But as important as any other component -- and more important in October baseball -- is pitching. That has been the closest thing to a constant for the Dodgers this year, even in some otherwise difficult times.
"We struggled to find out who we were for a long period of time," Torre said. "We had that one game where we beat Anaheim and we didn't get any hits. If it wasn't for pitching it would be tough to keep guys' interest, trust me, because we weren't putting many numbers up."
The Dodgers led the NL in team ERA. This fact, at this time of year, also turns out to be more important than 84-78.
The history of October baseball is the history of superior pitching beating even the best offenses. And that is exactly what happened here to the Cubs, the NL leader in runs scored.
The Cubs were stifled by three outstanding starting pitching performances, by Derek Lowe, Chad Billingsley and Hiroki Kuroda, the winner in the 3-1 clincher on Saturday night. The three pitched a total of 19 innings, with a cumulative ERA of 1.42. Those are precisely the kind of performances that are the essence of success in October.
Kuroda was as good as anybody, pitching 6 1/3 shutout innings. Including his two regular-season starts against Chicago, he has pitched 21 2/3 innings against the Cubs this year and allowed one earned run. That is much closer to great than good.
Asked about his performances against the Cubs, Kuroda seemed poised to set a Major League record for modesty when he said through an interpreter that it was "mere coincidence" that he was able to hold down the Cubs lineup in all three games.
Kuroda said that he didn't have his slider Saturday night, which in a way made his performance even more impressive.
"I must say that I didn't have all my stuff today," Kuroda said. "But watching those two games in Chicago, and the fans cheering, I rode the wave along with the fans."
Yes, the laid-back Californian stereotype was defeated by the crowd of 56,000 at Dodger Stadium, which was on for every pitch, as its team advanced in the postseason for the first time in 20 years. That's not a Cubs-like drought, but it still had caused some trauma.
The Dodgers defeated both the Cubs and the general expectations.
"It's very satisfying," Torre said. "Very satisfying. We had a lot of people doubting us all year. We weren't resentful about it. It was just the fact that we hadn't really played well enough to get anybody's attention."
That part of it is completely different now. With the sweep of what had been the NL's best team, the Dodgers have the baseball world's attention, not to mention respect.
When the Dodgers begin the NL Championship Series, their opponents will not be thinking "84-78 in the regular season." Their opponents will be thinking "3-0 against the league's best team in October."
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.