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09/12/09 2:25 AM ET
Pitching will carry Dodgers to postseason
Even with upstart Rockies' surge, LA headed to playoffs
SAN FRANCISCO -- The Los Angeles Dodgers are still going to reach the postseason. They are not getting to October in a gloriously one-sided, triumphant romp, but that kind of thing is not a requirement. At this point, the question of "how?" is not as central as "how many?" The Dodgers have not folded, wilted or crumbled in the second half of the season. They just haven't soared. With a National League West lead as large as 9 1/2 games in early June, it appeared that they would clinch by Labor Day at the latest. Their 28-26 record since the All-Star break would not tend to produce that kind of dominance, but that has not been the largest reason that a race still exists in the NL West. Since Jim Tracy took over the Colorado club in late May, the Rockies have gone 64-32, an astounding record over a span of more than 4 1/2 months. It could fairly be said that the Dodgers would not be having this problem with the Rockies if the Dodgers had not let Tracy go in the first place. That was the work of a previous baseball administration in Los Angeles. Tracy's side of the argument with former Dodgers general manager Paul DePodesta is looking better with each Colorado victory. On the other hand, the Dodgers wound up with Joe Torre as manager, which is not settling for second best. The Dodgers defeated the Giants, 10-3, on Friday night at AT&T Park, breaking open a close game against the San Francisco bullpen. The Dodgers' lead over the rampaging Rockies remained at two games, but no matter what happens with the Rockies, the Dodgers currently have a 7 1/2-game lead over the Giants. Even if the Rockies continue their overwhelming pace and overtake the Dodgers in the division race, the Dodgers, with 20 games left, would have to stage a major collapse to lose the NL Wild Card berth. That major collapse does not seem at all likely, because the Dodgers are strong where contending teams most need strength: in pitching. The Dodgers lead the Major Leagues in team earned run average. True, starters Randy Wolf and Clayton Kershaw are both unavailable at the moment, but the Dodgers have been pitching at their statistical best over the last month. They have given up five or fewer runs in each of their last 30 games. Friday night, in the opener of a pivotal three-game series with the rival Giants, Hiroki Kuroda, making just his second start since being skulled by a line drive on Aug. 15, pitched superbly, giving up two runs on three hits over eight innings. During one stretch, he retired 19 straight Giants. He walked no one and needed only 86 pitches. This came as a huge relief to the Dodgers, particularly due to the status of Wolf and Kershaw. Kuroda is an important part of their staff, a big-game pitcher who was 2-0 with a 1.46 ERA in the 2008 postseason. "Kuroda was great," Torre said. "That's the guy we know him to be." Kuroda was almost struck again on the mound, this time by a splintered bat that shattered in several directions, one of them toward the pitcher. Kuroda, who just missed three weeks with a concussion, still found the humor in this situation. "If I get hit by a bat, I think I'm going to retire," Kuroda said through an interpreter. The pitcher was smiling when he said that. Just as in Kuroda's case, pitching, in both quantity and quality remains the best reason why a late-season swoon is a far from likely outcome for this team. "Our pitching's done a great job," Torre said. The reason that the Dodgers are no longer running away with the division, apart from the Rockies' remarkable run, is the fact that the Los Angeles offense has slipped. It was obviously fine Friday night, but in their last 15 losses, the Dodgers have averaged a truly meager two runs per game. There are still concerns on that score. Manny Ramirez, for instance, has not been Manny Ramirez for some time. "I'd like to believe he's getting there, but he's not all the way back," Torre said. Ramirez was not alone in producing below expectations. On the other hand, a trio of young Dodgers, Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp and James Loney, have done their parts. Ethier and Kemp have both established career highs in home runs and RBIs. Loney is one of the few Dodgers who has picked up the pace offensively in recent weeks. His two-run, first-inning double Friday night set the tone the Dodgers needed. This emphatic victory in the opener of an important series, with yet another well-pitched game and a revived offense to boot, was obviously important for the Dodgers. But it did not make those relentless Rockies evaporate. Colorado pulled off another two-out, ninth-inning comeback to defeat San Diego. But with all of the momentum the Rockies have built, the Dodgers still have the upper hand. They also have a schedule that is not exactly perilous. There are three-game series at home against the Giants, and, to close the regular season, the Rockies. But there are also seven games against the Pirates, who have traded away an entire team by now, three games against the Nationals and two against the Padres. "As long as we win games, there's not much anybody can do about it," Torre said. With the kind of pitching the Dodgers have, winning those games remains a very realistic concept.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.