Dodgers brought to earth by better team
Power shortage, inexperienced bullpen highlighted in NLCS
LOS ANGELES -- Like Rick and Ilsa in "Casablanca" always had Paris, the 2008 Los Angeles Dodgers will always have the Division Series sweep over the Cubs.
All things seemed possible then. The Cubs were the best team in the National League. The Dodgers swept them. The Dodgers had the league's best team earned run average, they had the hottest hitter in the solar system, Manny Ramirez, they had a talented young lineup maturing at exactly the right time.
Maybe this was the Dodgers' first postseason series victory in 20 years, but it looked after the Chicago sweep as though the sky was the limit for the Dodgers. But in fact, the National League Championship Series was the limit for the Dodgers.
The Dodgers lost the NLCS in five games to the Philadelphia Phillies, the end coming in a 5-1 defeat Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium. These two series showed vividly the impressive potential of this team, as well as its limitations.
Dodgers manager Joe Torre said that he told his team after Game 5 "that I was proud to be their manager. This has been an up-and-down year. I think they learned a lot. I think they learned to come together."
That is indisputably true. The Dodgers struggled mightily to score earlier in the season, but with the maturation of the young hitters and the addition of Ramirez and Casey Blake, they emerged as a team good enough to win the NL West. That wasn't the toughest assignment in baseball, but the sweep of the Cubs established the Dodgers as something better than merely the team with the worst regular-season record of any postseason qualifier this year.
Torre attributed the Phillies' victory in this series to their power and the performance of their bullpen. Certainly, these were two areas in which the Dodgers could not match with the Phillies.
The Phillies won Game 1 with two home runs and Game 4 with two more home runs. The Dodgers had Ramirez hitting .533 in this series, but he did not have enough assistance from his colleagues. He had one-fourth of the Dodgers' total bases. That may have reflected how well he was hitting, but it also reflected shortcomings elsewhere.
The work of the two bullpens, though, was contrasted best in Game 4, in which the series turned for keeps. With incumbent closer Takashi Saito on the shelf, Torre had a bullpen with the same number of total career saves as Phillies closer Brad Lidge had since the All-Star break. Lidge is having an astounding year -- 46-for-46 in save opportunities including the postseason -- but Torre was left without enough proven commodities in his bullpen to compete with the quantity and the quality of the Philadelphia relief corps. Phillies relievers gave up only two runs in their last 19 1/3 postseason innings.
"They pitched real well out of the bullpen," Torre said. "We kept coming out -- we sort of kept skidding. We just kept spinning our wheels. We couldn't get where we needed to go."
Hiroki Kuroda was the Dodgers' best starter in the postseason. Chad Billingsley was terrific against the Cubs, but twice-beaten by the Phillies. In the end, the Dodgers were done in because they were defeated twice by the young ace of the Philadelphia rotation, Cole Hamels, who was named the series MVP. There is no doubting Billingsley's stuff or his potential, but in this series, he and Hamels were at opposite ends of the success spectrum.
Torre wouldn't see it this way, but his work with the Dodgers this year represented a personal victory. His streak of postseason appearances as a manager reached 13 straight and his team upset the team with the best record in the first playoff round. His previous team, the New York Yankees, without Torre's guidance, had its own streak of postseason appearances snapped at 13 and finished in third place in the American League East. There was inevitable second-guessing of some of his moves in this series, but all in all, Joe Torre the manager looked better than ever this season.
Where do the Dodgers go from here? They have a core of young talent as good as any in the National League, and that core can be expected to continue to develop. Torre's patience and calming leadership style had a positive role in the process and that can be expected to continue.
The Dodgers face some crucial and potentially expensive free-agent decisions. Ramirez is the most prominent free agent. Derek Lowe, at the top of the postseason rotation, is another major free agent. The choices won't be easy. The money will be immense, but these aren't the Pittsburgh Pirates we're talking about here.
There are other questions. Is there anything at all left to be gained from, for instance, Andruw Jones and/or Jason Schmidt? It was no accident that the Dodgers improved when they made the transition from fading veterans to promising young players, but there are still players on board who represent major investments and who not that long ago were major talents.
The future is far from bleak, but it is also far from certain. What is clear is the recent past. The 2008 Dodgers put it all together for three games in a splendid sweep of the Cubs and it seemed that the World Series beckoned. It was a wonderful time that lasted a matter of days.
What beckoned next, one step away from the World Series, was the Philadelphia team. For all of the promise on the Dodgers' roster, for all of the optimism generated by the Division Series sweep, the Dodgers lost the NLCS for the best of reasons, because the other team was better.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.