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10/05/09 8:48 PM ET

Dodgers confident despite late struggles

LA doesn't think it will mirror Chicago's early exit in 2008

LOS ANGELES -- Are the Dodgers this year's 2008 Cubs, about to waste the league's best regular-season record with a quick exit from the playoffs?

The way the Dodgers went about not clinching the division over the final week, stumbling to a season-high five-game losing streak before finally sealing the deal, might be cause for concern as they open the National League Division Series against the Cardinals on Wednesday.

It just doesn't seem to be cause for concern inside the Dodgers clubhouse.

"We've wobbled a little bit, but for us to avoid that, we just have to play our game," said Game 1 starter Randy Wolf. "The last two games were big for us to show we had that fight and to get us to believe we could win again. The Cubs last season were more dominating than we've been this year. They had a bigger lead and they clinched before we did. I think our timing was pretty good psychologically, having a celebration one day before the season ends."

The Dodgers won the NL West by three games at the end, although the lead had grown to a high of 9 1/2 games in early June and was as much as six games as late as Sept. 24. They captured back-to-back division titles for the first time since 1977-78 and have reached the postseason during three of the past four seasons under general manager Ned Colletti for the first time since '63-66. They won 95 games for the first time since '85 and went 50-32 at home, their best mark at Dodger Stadium since 1991, thanks in large part to winning their first 13 home games.

Andre Ethier said the Dodgers will advance to the NL Championship Series again this year because they play their game in October, not because they had more wins during the other six months.

"Just because you have the best record starting from April doesn't mean you're the best team in October," said Ethier. "Just because you have the best record doesn't mean you're supposed to win the whole thing. That's why those other teams are in it. Those wins in April and May get you here, but they don't translate into having the best chance in the playoffs. Those wins came with a five-man rotation, but you go to three or four starters in the playoffs and that changes a lot of things. You're not racking up wins against any fifth starters in the playoffs, usually. Now it's a five-game season or a seven-game season instead of 162."

Matt Kemp said the final weekend reflected how the Dodgers have rebounded against other obstacles during the season.

"When we're going bad, we've always bounced back and got our swag back," Kemp said. "I think winning the two games over the weekend has wiped out the week before that and got our confidence level back to where it needs to be and it should carry over to the postseason."

Division Series
Gm. 1LAD 5, STL 3WrapVideo
Gm. 2LAD 3, STL 2WrapVideo
Gm. 3LAD 5, STL 1WrapVideo

The Cubs also had an added burden with which to contend -- ghosts.

"We had an advantage only because of the pressure they had to endure because of their history," manager Joe Torre said, referring to the constant reminder that the Cubs were marking a 100-year drought last October since their last World Series win.

"That was all they heard about, and starting at home only increased that pressure and turned into another advantage for us last year. But you still have to play. And the grand slam by James Loney, after he came a foul tip from striking out with the bases loaded -- there are a lot of breaks you don't think about until it's all over and done, then you realize -- see how close you came to being on the other side."

Juan Pierre, a key contributor filling in during Manny Ramirez's 50-game suspension, won a championship with the Marlins in 2003 and is one of five Dodgers with World Series experience.

"I don't think there's a clear-cut way to avoid being flat," said Pierre. "It's not like the Cubs weren't trying to win. I think one thing you can't do, say for whatever reason you lose the first game, you just can't panic. But you never know how a guy will react to the playoff pressure. I think it's a good thing we were just in it last year."

Pierre said last year's Dodgers club was Manny-centric, but this club is better because the burden has been shared with the emergence of Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier into budding stars, with a balanced lineup that had those two plus James Loney with at least 90 RBIs each, and with an improved defense.

On the other hand, the Dodgers don't have the type of dominating pitching generally associated with teams that go deep into the playoffs. On paper, they don't have answers for the Cardinals' pair of Cy Young candidates, Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright.

In fact, Chad Billingsley slumped late, was skipped a start and is expected to be one of their four starters, although Torre hasn't made that official. And Billingsley was the Dodgers' biggest winner this year with 12. The only other time in Los Angeles history that the Dodgers' leading winner had fewer wins in a full season was 1992, when Tom Candiotti won 11 and the Dodgers lost 99.

Torre on Sunday sounded confident that the team's late tailspin was triggered by player "anxiety" and not "pressure," and that in any case it was behind them. He spent Sunday receiving congratulations from an eclectic array of supporters, mentioning a Spike Lee text and a phone call that interrupted his chat with infielder Ronnie Belliard.

"That was John Wooden on the phone," Torre said of the legendary basketball coach who turns 99 next week. "That's pretty special."

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.