10/03/08 10:33 PM ET
Dodgers serve notice they're for real
Regular-season record belies threat LA poses in playoffs
By Ken Gurnick / MLB.com
"That's fine," Dodgers catcher Russell Martin said. "We deserved those wins. They made mistakes, but we capitalized. I don't care what other people think about us. I know we're a good team. Our whole team knows what we're capable of. As long as we believe in ourselves, that's all we need."
Two games in and the Dodgers have gone from underdog to the verge of a series sweep. They've had dominating starts from Derek Lowe and Chad Billingsley, they've hammered out 17 runs -- one shy of their total for seven regular-season games against the Cubs -- and they've done it on the road. And they've been playing like this for more than a month, but a lot of people haven't noticed, while skeptics went unconvinced.
Manager Joe Torre said he noticed the promise his club possessed way back when it took three of four in an early July series in Houston. Don Mattingly arrived as hitting coach at the All-Star break with a simplified and patient batting approach, Casey Blake's acquisition on July 26 solidified the infield and Manny Ramirez came aboard at the Trade Deadline and seemed to hit a home run every game.
Even with Manny being Mannywood, the team struggled through an eight-game losing streak in late August, during which Torre actually called a team meeting and announced he still believed the NL West could be won.
"It was in Washington and it really caught on -- we lost three games there," deadpanned Torre. "But I just felt we were doing good things and that series in Philadelphia was bizarre. Arizona wasn't going anywhere and we were going to play them six more times. We lost the first game that Friday night but came back to beat Dan Haren and Brandon Webb. We went 2-8 on that trip and didn't lose any ground. That's crazy. I just felt if we put any streak together, we had the pitching to sustain it."
And the Dodgers shifted into an eight-game win streak, propelling them to a 19-8 finish. The Dodgers' overall record was 84-78 -- the worst of all division champs -- compared to the Cubs' 97-64, best in the league.
GAME 3: JUST THE FACTS
|Dodger Stadium, Saturday, 7 p.m. PT|
|Cubs starter: RHP Rich Harden|
|2008: 10-2, 2.07 ERA (OAK and CHC)|
|2008 on road: 5-2, 2.50 ERA|
|2008 vs. Dodgers: No record|
|Career vs. Dodgers: No record|
|Career postseason: 1-2, 6.43 ERA|
|Dodgers starter: RHP Hiroki Kuroda|
|2008: 9-10, 3.73 ERA|
|2008 at home: 6-2, 3.68 ERA|
|2008 vs. Cubs: 1-1, 0.59 ERA|
|Career vs. Cubs: 1-1, 0.59 ERA|
|Career postseason: First appearance|
|Dodgers lead series, 2-0. No team in the Wild Card era has won a National League Division Series after trailing 2-0.|
|Game 1: Dodgers 7, Cubs 2|
|Game 2: Dodgers 10, Cubs 3|
|Did you know? Kuroda will be the fourth Japanese-born pitcher to start a playoff game in Major League history, joining Hideo Nomo, Masato Yoshii and Daisuke Matsuzaka.|
But the Dodgers know that their 2-5 mark against the Cubs in May and June actually was that of another club, not this one. And if you weren't paying attention, or your impression of the Dodgers was just a nightly Manny Ramirez highlight clip on SportsCenter, you probably missed this team's coming of age.
"I just think when you play on the West Coast, I know when I was on the East Coast with the late start to games out here, I had no idea what anyone was doing on the West Coast," said Derek Lowe, the Game 1 winning pitcher and likely, but unannounced, Game 4 starter if one is needed.
"People look at our record and no one sees a good team in the division and the perception of our team and our lineup is what it was when we got swept [in Chicago in May]. But we know we have just as good a chance as anybody. As long as we believe it in here. We're not even close to the team we were the first four months. I look at it basically like we've been together two months.
"We kind of had this conversation when we played Arizona when we had to face Haren and Webb. I don't think people give this staff enough credit. You know, we did lead the league in ERA and we had a 16-game winner [Thursday] with a three ERA. I think people need to start giving these guys credit as far as they are good, too."
Juan Pierre, a former Cubs player and a member of the Marlins, who went from underdog to champions in 2003, understands the dynamics at play of a postseason that opens at Wrigley Field.
"In Chicago, everybody worries about the Cubs and you can't relax and go out and play without hearing the hype and it definitely adds pressure, because you're supposed to win," Pierre said. "They'd have done better if they opened on the road. The fans there are craving it for so long, it escalates and snowballs as soon as any little thing goes wrong, and everybody starts thinking about the past."
What the Dodgers know, and what the opposition knows, is there finally is a bat to fear in Ramirez, whose remarkable production has continued with home runs in each playoff game. But Torre also saw the emergence of Andre Ethier, more consistency from Matt Kemp and James Loney, the surprise arrival of Blake DeWitt and Martin, an All-Star even though this wasn't his best season.
Pierre said the bulletproof attitude of some younger Dodgers, considered by some within the organization as a negative, might now be a positive.
"The media perception has been that we were the underdog, but the way we play, you can tell the younger guys haven't been intimidated at all," he said. "The cockiness and confidence comes into play now and this is where you like that. You don't get a bigger stage than Wrigley Field, and if you can handle that, you can be tough to beat."
The Dodgers were beset with injuries during the season that shelved Opening Day starter Brad Penny, closer Takashi Saito and shortstop Rafael Furcal for long layoffs. Furcal returned from back surgery in time to reclaim his starting shortstop job for the playoffs and Saito is back closing games, although his injured elbow will be watched carefully after his lackluster outing in Game 2.
Then there's the pitching, which is where Torre insists championships are won and lost. Lowe was very good in Game 1 and Chad Billingsley was better in Game 2. Hiroki Kuroda has the chance to close it out and the Dodgers are expected to stick with the three if the series continues. Starters Greg Maddux and Clayton Kershaw have bolstered a bullpen that backs up Saito with Jonathan Broxton, unsung rookie workhorse Cory Wade, Chan Ho Park, Joe Beimel and rookie James McDonald.
Jeff Kent and Nomar Garciaparra provide Torre with as accomplished a pair of clutch hitters as any bench possesses.
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.