About three hours before the franchise's latest big moment, a chance last Saturday to sweep St. Louis right out of the National League Division Series, the Dodgers' clubhouse was as loose as open-mike night at The Improv. While five-tool centerfielder Matt Kemp showed off a sixth tool—deejay to the clubhouse iPod—outfielder Juan Pierre busted a few dance moves to some cranked hip-hop, inspiring third baseman Casey Blake, the pride of Indianola, Iowa, to join in with his own cornpone version of getting his groove on. ¬∂ The Dodgers play baseball like they cut a rug: uninhibited, boldly and with contributions from plenty of unexpected sources. Such insouciance served them well during an NLDS sweep in which they committed no errors, held St. Louis to six runs, pulled off one comeback win that reached new heights of improbability, scored their final nine runs with two outs and thrived from the know-how of their manager, Joe Torre, the horse whisperer of postseason baseball. "We may not be the most talented team," Torre says, "but they just seem to find a way to win. They're relaxed, and they have tremendous confidence. They don't feel like anybody should beat them. Not can't—that's dangerous. Should beat them."
Says Randy Wolf, the Game 1 starter despite having only 11 wins during the regular season and no previous postseason experience, "The guys don't care who's pitching against them or what people say about them. Ignorance is bliss. And there's a lot of bliss in here."
For all their success this season—the club led the league in hitting, ERA, defensive efficiency and, for the first time in 26 years, victories—the Dodgers don't fit the standard profile of a postseason beast. They do not have a true ace (though 22-year-old lefthander Clayton Kershaw will get there soon enough); their most accomplished hitter, Manny Ramirez, entered the postseason in a funk marked by 10 whiffs in his previous 22 at bats; and they stumbled so badly on what should have been an easy path to clinching the NL West title that after purchasing $6,400 worth of champagne on Sept. 26, they went 1--5 and had to haul 160 bottles of bubbly 2,574 miles over eight days from Pittsburgh to San Diego to Los Angeles before finally getting to uncork them on the penultimate day of the season.
What the Dodgers do have, however, is a worry-free vibe, which has allowed them to play well when the stakes are the highest, a trademark of Torre's most successful Yankees teams. "First meeting of the year, spring training, Joe sits down and the first words out of his mouth are, 'Our goal is to win the World Series from this day moving forward,'" says rightfielder Andre Ethier, 27, who has taken the express elevator to stardom, having improved his home run, doubles, hit and RBI totals in each of his four years in the majors.
Ethier and the 24-year-old Kemp became the youngest pair of Dodgers to each hit 25 homers and drive in 100 runs since Tommy Davis and Frank Howard did it in 1962. In doing so, they weaned the club off its dependence on Ramirez, who was suspended 50 games for using a banned substance and hit .251 after July 23. Ramirez, after looking like every one of his 37 years, did whack three hits in the clincher, though you can fully expect opposing pitchers to continue to pound him with fastballs for the duration of his postseason.
Asked if this L.A. team was better than the one that reached the NLCS last year, where it was easily dispatched by the Phillies in five games, third base coach Larry Bowa says, "Yes. Last year if Manny didn't hit, we were in trouble. If Manny doesn't do it now, we can still do it. Guys like Ethier and Kemp stepped up."
The Dodgers take players where they can find them; general manager Ned Colletti built his team as if reassembling a motor in his garage, being careful not to forsake the salvage yard for parts. In January, on the advice of scout Ron Rizzi, he signed reliever Ronald Belisario of Leones de Caracas, a Venezuelan winter league team. Few noticed. After all, the 26-year-old Belisario had washed out of the Florida and Pittsburgh organizations without ever reaching Triple A. But with a devastating hard sinker, Belisario had the seventh-lowest ERA of any NL reliever (2.04).
Of the 25 players on the Dodgers' postseason roster, Belisario was one of 11 who were not in the organization when the year began, including five who were added with 61 or fewer games remaining in the season. One of them, pitcher Vicente Padilla, was regarded as such a disruptive clubhouse presence in Texas that the Rangers released him on Aug. 17, when he had a winning record (8--6) for a pitching-hungry team that was leading the AL wild-card race.
Padilla's agent, Adam Katz, met Colletti one morning shortly thereafter at Uncle Bill's Pancake House in Manhattan Beach, Calif., and practically begged the Dodgers' G.M. to give his client a job. Katz, never bothering to actually eat his meal, told Colletti, "If you think the guy can pitch, I assure you that you have nothing else to worry about."
"I'll think about it," replied Colletti, who ran the idea past Torre. The manager consulted with Bowa, who had managed Padilla in Philadelphia from 2001 through '04.
"Bo," Torre said, "I think he can pitch, but I don't want him messing up this clubhouse."
Bowa assured Torre that Padilla had not been a problem for him in Philadelphia and would fit in fine. Colletti called back Katz and arranged for another meeting, this time with Padilla, in a conference room at Dodger Stadium. "I can tell you need us; otherwise you wouldn't be here," Colletti told Padilla. "To some extent, we need you. I'm prepared to give you a clean slate. But you will be the one to write the next chapter—not me, not Joe Torre, not anybody else."
Colletti, convinced that Padilla would not risk being thrown off two contenders in the final two months of his walk year, signed him to the prorated major league minimum. For about $80,000 Padilla went 4--0 with a 3.20 ERA down the stretch, earning so much confidence from Torre that Padilla started the Game 3 clincher ahead of Chad Billingsley, the staff leader in wins. Padilla throttled St. Louis with seven shutout innings.
By Game 3 the Dodgers had drained the fight out of the Cardinals, having come from behind to win games started by their aces, Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright, including a Hollywood ending to Game 2. Down to their last out with nobody on base and trailing 2--1, the Dodgers won 3--2, when five consecutive batters reached base against Cardinals closer Ryan Franklin, the capper a walk-off, chili-dipped single by Mark Loretta, who had been 0 for 15 against Franklin. The avalanche had started when Cardinals leftfielder Matt Holliday dropped what should have been the last out, a soft liner that he lost in the stadium lights, fumbling for the baseball around his midsection like someone grasping for dropped car keys in the dark. It was the first time, after 1,501 career putouts, that Holliday had been charged with an error for dropping a ball. It was the first time in the 1,239 postseason games played that a team had lost after making an error on what should have been the 27th out of a win. Talk about your Holliday breaks.
We got lucky," acknowledges Torre, who otherwise worked the series like a puppeteer. Among his aggressive moves, Torre took the bat out of Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols's hands by walking him in every key spot, even if it meant loading the bases with no outs in the first inning of the first game (the Dodgers escaped with only one run scoring); yanked his Game 1 starter, Wolf, in the fourth inning with a lead; and brought in his closer, Jonathan Broxton, in the eighth inning of every game, most notably while trailing 2--1 in Game 2, a move that surprised even the L.A. coaches.
When asked by Torre to get the closer up in the bottom of the seventh of Game 2, bench coach Bob Schaefer said, with surprise, "We have other guys we can go to. "We can go to...."
Torre cut him off.
"Get Broxton up."
Said Colletti as he sipped and dripped champagne after Game 3, "If Joe doesn't make that move, I'm standing here dry. He just has a knack of knowing when the game is tilting just a little the wrong way and how to tilt it back in his favor."
Torre has won more postseason games (83) than any other manager in history, and his 14 teams since 1996 have made the playoffs every year and played even better in the postseason (.619 winning percentage) than in the regular season (.597). Way back in the fourth game of that 134-game postseason run, in the 1996 ALDS, Torre watched his starting pitcher, Kenny Rogers, give up two runs in the second inning to Texas, at which point his bench coach, Don Zimmer, told him, "You better get somebody up."
"What? It's only the second inning!"
"Never wait in the postseason," Zimmer told him.
Torre went to his bullpen in the third inning. His Yankees came back to win 6--4, and Zimmer's call for urgency became a hallmark of Torre's throat-stomping October style. "That," Torre says, "is where it began."
On Saturday night, with the music cranked again in the Dodgers' clubhouse, 216 bottles of champagne and 36 cases of beer were consumed, sprayed or spilled, this time just one day after purchase. It was the 33rd champagne celebration in 14 years for Torre, who was doused by Kemp, as good a symbol as any of the Dodgers' growing assuredness, their collective appetite for, in the words of Colletti, "the big moment." In 2008 Torre sat Kemp against tough righthanders such as '07 NL Cy Young Award winner Jake Peavy. This year Torre started Kemp on Opening Day against the then Padres ace, and Kemp hit a home run. It was Kemp who began the Dodgers' scoring in the NLDS by mashing a first-pitch homer off Carpenter.
"He doesn't know," Torre says, "who he's not supposed to hit."
"I told everyone at the beginning of the year to expect something special from this team," Kemp says. "Why? It's more together. We're having more fun."
All around him there was only bliss.
The Dodgers don't fit the profile of a postseason beast. What they do have is a worry-free vibe.
"Last year if Manny didn't hit, we were in trouble. This year Ethier and Kemp stepped up."
Photograph by DAVID E. KLUTHO
JUST SAY 'DRE Rising star Ethier, who clubbed two homers in the NLDS, has fortified the middle of arguably the NL's deepest lineup.
DANNY MOLOSHOK/REUTERS (HOLLIDAY)
COSTLY FUMBLE L.A. benefited from a little luck, most notably the Holliday gaffe that led to Loretta's winning single in Game 2.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
[See caption above]
GROWING GAINS Torre watched Kemp (left) and a young core transform the Dodgers into a club that lived for the big moment—like last weekend's.