Monday, October 02, 2006

In Which Rose Meets You At The Finish Line

I wanted to post about the Dodgers' season earlier, but things kept changing. Some teams assemble just-respectably-over-.500 records a game at a time. The Dodgers did it by alternating winning and losing streaks. This is L.A., after all; we live for the drama.

I'm finally writing this after the last regular-season game of the year. By tying the Padres for the division lead, the Dodgers have earned a spot in the playoffs. Since the teams finished with identical records, the top playoff spot goes to the team who won the head-to-head series, and in this case that's the Padres.

That's fine. We'll take the wild card slot.

In true buried-lead fashion, there's already much being made in the national press about how this is the Dodgers' second playoff berth in three years. Dig a little deeper, and you'll find mention of last year's abysmal season. That's not the true story, however. The true story is that Frank McCourt's gone from Worst Owner Ever to Not The Best Owner Ever, But Better Than Fox. After firing Paul DiPodesta, who fired Jim Tracy, who'd gone from Not The Best Manager Ever, But Better Than Davey Johnson to Worst Manager In The History Of Any Sport, Ever, McCourt handed the reins over to Ned Colletti.

The reins came attached to a farm system that was finally back on its feet. With not much time left, Ned Colletti huddled with his new staff of deputy GMs and started going after veterans. Few of them had put up stellar numbers in the past couple of years, but they were all still solid -- if expensive -- players. Some fans grumbled about it, but there wasn't really anywhere to go but up.

Now that Kenny Lofton and Rafael Furcal have both finished the season batting .300 with 30-plus stolen bases -- and Nomar Garciaparra has popped off key hit after key hit when he's healthy -- and Brett Tomko is turning himself into a solid middle reliever -- and Aaron Sele has proven to be the kind of guy who's equally comfortable starting and relieving -- and midseason acquisition Greg Maddux is back in form -- I'm sure the aforementioned grumblers think Ned Colletti's a genius.

Ned Colletti's the first to tell you that he's been winging it much of the time, because things didn't go quite as planned.

The out-for-the-season DL includes Eric Gagne and Yhency Brazoban, the presumed closers, and Bill Mueller, who was supposed to be the third baseman and team leader. Key player after key player got hurt, and some reactivated players never regained their pre-injury form.

But, you know? It all worked out in the end. Newly-promoted rookies and non-roster invitees stepped into the vacuum. Somewhere along the line, Takashi Saito turned himself into a closer, and Brett Tomko decided he'd try middle relief. The team started the season with Dioner Navarro behind the plate. When he got injured, they called up my fake baby boyfriend Russell Martin, and he's been there ever since. It wasn't much of a surprise when Nomar started the season on the DL; what was a surprise was that they were able to stick in James Loney, a kid who'd been happy to make it to AAA, and that he did a pretty darn good job at first base while Nomar was recovering. When he got back, Nomar took to his new position immediately.

I could go on. Perhaps another time, I will.


I can't remember another year when so little was decided going into the last week of the season. We had the Dodgers, Padres and Phillies vying for two slots, and for a minute there it looked like Houston would knock off St. Louis at the last minute. The AL Central was tame by comparison; still, it was kind of interesting to watch the Twins slip by the Tigers for the top slot.

That kind of drama gets people's attention, even here.

Despite the fact that Dodger Stadium set yet another attendance record this year, much of L.A. seems only dimly aware that we have a baseball team, much less one that's been winning. It's only in the past couple of weeks that it's become hard to ignore it.


I'd like to be able to say that I saw the home run derby comeback of September 18 -- and I suppose I could, but I'd be lying. I checked in on the game as I was driving to the establishment at which I spend perhaps too many Monday nights, and the Dodgers were down by a bunch in the eighth. The game felt like it was going to determine the course of the season, and I just wasn't up to having my heart trampled on some more.

Of course, you know what happened: Four consecutive homers in the ninth, Nomar's game-winner in extra innings, and the Dodgers suddenly looking alive.

They promptly dropped the next two games. With other sports, you can depend on a day or a week off after any given performance. Spend too much energy during or after one game, and it's going to affect you the next day. Baseball's schedule is merciless, which is why there was a Nationals-Phillies game that didn't get started until 11:30pm local time on Thursday. No time to make anything up.

(Earlier that day, James Loney knocked in nine runs in a 19-11 victory over Colorado, proof that Denver is already in football mode.)

I did see the game the following Sunday, when Nomar once again won the game with a home run -- this one a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth. Overkill? Sure. But it worked. And as he rounded the bases, I realized that the last time I saw a guy playing in so much pain hit such a crucial home run, it was Kirk Gibson in the first game of the 1988 World Series.


If you can't clinch a playoff berth at home, then you want to clinch it where it's going to hurt the most. So it's fitting that the Dodgers won it in San Francisco.

The gang was all there. Frank McCourt, Ned Colletti and Tommy Lasorda were in the stands. Vin Scully was in the press box; he doesn't usually call games that aren't on local TV, but he almost always gets in on a late-season radio game against the Giants.

Eric Gagne and Bill Mueller were in the clubhouse, eyeing the champagne. When the rest of the team streamed in, Gagne poured champagne on everyone within arm's reach. Mueller manned the distribution table.

Everyone contributes in the end. It just doesn't always work out quite as you'd expect.


So now we head into the postseason, and the speculation. Will Brad Penny's back loosen up enough to pitch -- and does it really matter, when Derek Lowe and Greg Maddux are throwing so well and when rookie Hong-Chih Kuo is right up there with them? Will Nomar be well enough to play? Will the veterans' collective playoff experience help? Will national broadcasters stop talking about next season long enough to notice that the Dodgers' season isn't over yet?

Conventional wisdom is that the Dodgers will go down in flames against the Mets. Why should the team start paying attention to conventional wisdom now? This is the team that went 1-14 -- and immediately followed that by going 17-1.

I've been saying it all year: Numbers are good indicators, but intangibles matter, too. There's no way to predict what's going to happen in the playoffs. All you can do is watch.

Watch the players. Watch the game. Watch for miracles. This is baseball, after all. We like that sort of thing.