© 2008 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.

10/06/08 8:29 PM EST

Lowe embraces challenges of October

But right-hander stops short of calling himself Dodgers ace

LOS ANGELES -- When a reporter tried to preface a question to starter Derek Lowe about him being the ace of a team playing for a championship, Lowe almost seemed to take offense at the mere suggestion that he headlines Los Angeles' stellar staff, brushing off the notion.

"I'm not the ace," Lowe said. "[Chad] Billingsley won more games than me. I've never bought into that. I believe there are only three to five what I would call true aces. Pedro Martinez, obviously, was a true ace.

complete postseason coverage

"We're just more of a balanced staff, which is important this time of year because there aren't drop-offs from guy to guy. You want everybody at the same level."

There certainly wasn't much difference in the quality pitching lines of Lowe, Billingsley and Hiroki Kuroda in the Dodgers' National League Division Series sweep of the Cubs, but Lowe stands out among Los Angeles' starters as a hurler who has thrived in hostile environments on the road.

Lowe started and won Boston's clinching game in the 2004 American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium, its World Series clincher in St. Louis the same year and set the tone for the Dodgers' series sweep of the Cubs in Game 1 at Wrigley Field.

Dealing out West
The five National League West teams had the lowest composite ERA of any of the three NL divisions.
NL West4.24
NL East4.30
NL Central4.32

So if manager Joe Torre hands Lowe the ball in Game 1 of the NLCS at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia as expected, Lowe won't back down from the challenge.

After all, Lowe lives for October.

"I think it's kind of what you play for, the excitement, the crowd's into the game, how intense the games are," Lowe said. "It's nothing like a regular-season game. I'm kind of used to pitching on the road and pitching in kind of hostile environments. I think that having pitched those road games, having to pitch another one wouldn't be that big of a deal."

Torre chose not to reveal his starting pitching assignments at Monday's workout until he met with those hurlers, but conventional wisdom says Billingsley will follow Lowe in Game 2 and Kuroda will get the Game 3 assignment after that pairing worked so well against the Cubs.

Then things could get interesting, as the Dodgers could bring Lowe back on short rest to work Game 4 and thus go with a three-man rotation, with Billingsley working Game 5, Kuroda Game 6 and Lowe Game 7 on regular rest with the plethora of off-days built into the schedule.

Torre said a three-man rotation is "certainly a possibility," especially because the sinkerballer Lowe is comfortable working on short rest and was prepared to do so if the Cubs extended the Division Series.

However, complicating matters is a Phillies lineup that relies more on left-handers than the Cubs did, with Philadelphia boasting lefty standouts Ryan Howard and Chase Utley compared to Chicago's primarily right-handed lineup.

Torre said that means there needs to be a left-handed "presence" on Los Angeles' pitching staff, which he defined as needing at least two lefties in the bullpen and possibly a left-handed starter.

Better than you thought?
Only one NL West team finished significantly below average in team pitching in 2008.
Team ERA NL rank
Dodgers3.68 1st
Diamondbacks3.98 5th
Giants4.38 9th
Padres4.41 10th
Rockies4.77 15th

Lefty Joe Beimel, who did not pitch against the Cubs, served as the club's left-handed specialist against Howard and Utley during the regular season, and Hong-Chih Kuo will be the other lefty arm if he can return from the triceps stiffness that's sidelined him for about a month.

If Kuo returns, the Dodgers will likely think harder about putting lefty starter Clayton Kershaw in the rotation and going with a four-man set. Kershaw went 0-1 against the Phillies with an 8.10 ERA that was inflated by a six-run, four-inning outing on Aug. 23. He also pitched six innings of three-run ball against Philadelphia on Aug. 12.

"If I get the opportunity, I'll go right after them, see what they've got," said Kershaw, a 20-year-old rookie devoid of playoff experience. "I don't know what to expect, really. All I know is if I get the opportunity, I'll be ready."

But before the Dodgers need to decide if Kershaw will make his playoff starting debut in the NLCS, Lowe likely will be called upon in Game 1 to continue his remarkable run in which he's gone 5-0 with a 0.85 ERA over 42 1/3 innings of his past seven starts.

That streak has turned a sub-.500 pitcher into somebody who could legitimately be called an ace -- unless you ask him, that is -- and it's also coincided with a major spike in run support.

The Dodgers have averaged seven runs per game for him in those five wins, with a 1-0 unsupported no-decision thrown in, after Lowe went through a season of losing games by scores of 2-1 and 1-0.

That support has helped loosen up Lowe. Even when he fell behind, 2-0, in Game 1 of the NLDS, he always felt his offense would battle back, as it eventually did.

"I think in maybe certain situations you felt like you almost had to keep them to one or two runs," Lowe said of pitching earlier in the season. "That sense isn't there, and I think that makes everyone's job easier because every pitch you don't have to fear this pitch is going to change a game, even if it's only one or two runs.

"Those times are way in the past, and this is a totally different team. I think people are starting to realize that."

Michael Schwartz is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.