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Artful Dodgers

Despite a badly banged-up rotation, L.A. won a critical showdown with the Giants to maintain its NL West lead

The ancient rivalry between the Dodgers and the Giants is steeped in hyperbole, and during last week's crucial three-game series in San Francisco both teams nearly ran out of superlatives.

The reeling Dodgers arrived at SBC Park clinging to a 1 1/2game lead in the National League West, and after a 3--2 victory in Friday's opener, L.A. leftfielder Jayson Werth called it "by far the biggest win of the year." The following afternoon the Giants counterpunched, winning 9--5 on an eighth-inning grand slam by infielder Pedro Feliz. "Absolutely the most important game of the season," said Giants closer Dustin Hermanson. Sunday's rubber game, a 7--4 L.A. victory, was played at a fever pitch, after which first baseman J.T. Snow, a Giant since 1997, said, "This was the most mentally challenging and exhausting game since I've been here." The Dodgers' Jeff Weaver, who gave up three runs in six scrappy innings, joined the chorus, calling it "the biggest win of my career."

The victory extended L.A.'s lead over the Giants to 21/2 games and put the Dodgers in position to reach the postseason for the first time since 1996. But the two teams meet again this weekend in Los Angeles for a season-ending, three-game series, so nothing is decided yet.

Even if the Dodgers prevail, they have to be concerned about their shaky starting rotation. On Sept. 11 L.A. led San Francisco by six games, but over the next 11 days the Dodgers had only three quality starts and saw their advantage shrink to a half game. Even worse, on Sept. 22 righthander Brad Penny, whom L.A. acquired from Florida at the trading deadline to be its ace, reaggravated an injured nerve in his right biceps and was lost for the season.

With that as prologue, lefthander Odalis Perez opened the series against San Francisco last Friday by pitching eight masterful innings that set the tone for the Dodgers. Showing off one of the nastiest sliders in baseball, Perez allowed only three hits and twice struck out Barry Bonds after the slugger homered in the second inning. Still, the win only improved Perez's record to 7--6, even though his 3.35 ERA was 14th-best in the league at week's end. The hard-luck Perez had a major-league-high 17 no-decisions.

The Dodgers' other mainstays are the talented but erratic Weaver (13--12, 4.01 ERA) and junkballing journeyman Jose Lima (13--5, 4.19), whose start on Saturday was the righthander's first in 11 days because of a hairline fracture in the thumb of his pitching hand. Lima's rustiness was evident as he struggled with his location and allowed four runs and seven hits in 3 2/3 innings.

Injuries have wreaked havoc on the back end of the rotation as well. Hideo Nomo, who was out with an inflamed rotator cuff, came off the DL on Sept. 1, but in his first four starts he had a 9.00 ERA and showed an alarming loss of velocity before he was finally banished to the bullpen. Rookie righthander Edwin Jackson has also been dogged by injury, a strained right forearm. "We're not run down; we've been beaten up," said manager Jim Tracy, who will go into the final week of the pennant race having to start Jackson and lefthander Kaz Ishii (13--7, 4.84), whose wildness has twice led to demotions to the bullpen.

That L.A. has made it this far is due in large part to its stellar defense and the game's best closer, Eric Gagne, who had 45 saves through Sunday. Those are the two big reasons that the Dodgers have a major-league-best 30--16 record in one-run games. An opportunistic offense and power up and down the lineup, led by MVP candidate Adrian Beltre (.341, 47 homers, 117 RBIs), have also keyed 49 comeback victories, tops in the NL.

Clearly the Dodgers have a lot of heart, but it's probably their arms that will determine whether they make the playoffs and have any success in the postseason.

Three Up

Mike Mussina, RHP, Yankees

Moose finally looks like an ace again--through Sunday he was 3--1 with a 1.75 ERA in September--thanks to an improved fastball and a new cutter.

Dallas McPherson, 3B, Angels

Called up on Sept. 6, the 24year-old slugger, who had 40 homers in the minors this year, was hitting .273 with two homers at week's end.

Rodrigo Lopez, RHP, Orioles

After his three-hit shutout against Detroit on Sunday, he was 4--0 with a 2.57 ERA in his last five starts.

Three Down

Milwaukee Brewers

With just 19 second-half wins at week's end, the Brewers were on pace to finish with the lowest winning percentage of any team ever with a winning record at the All-Star break.

LaTroy Hawkins, RHP, Cubs

After losing a three-run lead against the Mets last Saturday, he had blown four of his last nine save chances.

Florida Marlins

The Marlins had won 14 of 18 until Hurricane Frances hit on Sept. 4. They had lost 14 of 23 since then.




Weaver had his "biggest win" ever in Sunday's rubber match, but Lima (below) struggled in his return from a thumb injury.



 [See caption above]




The hard-luck Perez, who has 17 no-decisions, threw a decided gem on Friday.