- Tony Jackson, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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DENVER -- One of the first questions Los Angeles Dodgers manager Joe Torre was asked following his team's fourth consecutive victory, 6-2 over the Colorado Rockies before 41,964 on Friday night at Coors Field, was whether Manny Ramirez will return to the linuep on Saturday night following a two-game absence that had only raised suspicions about what the club plans to do with the quirky left fielder.
"I'm not sure yet," Torre said. "I told him we would talk about it tomorrow. I have been a lot more superstitious since I started managing."
As Torre spoke, his jersey was unbuttoned far enough to reveal a blue T-shirt underneath, on which was an illustration of a large coin with a profile of third baseman Casey Blake and the words "In Beard We Trust" arching across the top. If Torre is superstitious enough to think winning the past two games without Ramirez warrants keeping him out of the lineup for another day, then surely he is superstitious enough to wear that T-shirt every night -- maybe even without washing, perhaps? -- until the winning streak ends.
The beard proved trustworthy yet again in the top of the eighth, Blake following Andre Ethier's game-tying, RBI double off the indomitable Ubaldo Jimenez with a beautiful, eight-pitch at-bat against Matt Belisle that ended in a grand slam homer into the front row in left-center, putting the Dodgers ahead to stay and adding more fuel to the argument that maybe this team shouldn't trade Ramirez after all.
For Blake, a veteran player who is some ways has had a season to forget offensively, it was his second home run in the past two games and continued a recent surge in which he is 5-for-13 with the two homers, a double, three runs scored and six RBI in the three games since Torre rested him against Milwaukee's Dave Bush on Tuesday night.
With the help of Jonathan Broxton (5-4) and Hong-Chih Kuo, whose four-out save gave him six for the season, the lead held up. With that, the Dodgers had beaten Jimenez, the Rockies' ace and the frontrunner for the National League Cy Young Award, for the second time this year, accounting for 40 percent of his five losses.
More importantly, by beating the Rockies for the seventh time in 10 head-to-head matchups this season, the Dodgers (67-62) finally caught them Rockies in both the NL West and wild-card standings, where the two clubs are tied for third and fourth place, respectively. And suddenly, just five days after the Dodgers lost for the 23rd time in 37 games since the All-Star break and all seemed lost, they are very much in contention for at least a wild-card entry into the playoffs.
As for Blake, while he is still hitting a pedestrian .254, he does have 14 homers and 56 RBIs. His resurgence has come in tandem with a team-wide offensive blossoming. In six games since Ramirez returned from the disabled list -- only three of which Ramirez has actually played in -- this formerly punchless team has scored 33 runs.
"It's a product of the rest of the guys in our lineup finding their way, too," Blake said. "For a while, it seemed like everybody had kind of fallen back. But now, the guys at the top of the order are doing a good job of getting on base. That was a great job by [Scott] Podsednik there of starting that inning off with a base hit and a stolen base, and [Ryan] Theriot with a great walk. And then Andre came up with the big double."
As for Blake himself, he has been working extensively with hitting coach Don Mattingly and instructor Jeff Pentland on hitting the ball between the gaps, an attempt to trade one habit -- trying to pull the ball -- for another, more effective one.
"It seems like a lot of times, I have a tendency to kind of open up a little early and kind of rush my hands out and kind of cut across the ball and open up too quickly," Blake said. "I have dropped my hands a little bit, where my hitting path isn't really an upper cut. I'm just trying to stay up the middle and get something I can drive to the middle of the field. We have been working off the tee every day for the past couple of weeks.
"I have rolled over some balls, which kind of gets me out of that mindset, so I rely on Donnie to remind me to just trust it."
With the Rockies leading 1-0 in the top of the eighth, a point at which Jimenez had dominated but was starting to tire, Podsednik led off with a line single to center and stole second. When Jimenez followed by walking Theriot -- who was trying to sacrifice -- it seemed like the perfect time to make a change, especially with left-hander Joe Beimel warming in the bullpen and lefty-hitting Andre Ethier coming up.
Ethier is hitting .236, and Beimel is limiting left-handed batters to a .176 average.
Instead of coming to the mound to remove him, Rockies manager Jim Tracy sent pitching coach Bob Apodaca out simply to talk to Jimenez, who then was allowed to pitch to Ethier. Ethier then stroked a game-tying double to the wall in center field, after which Tracy finally did come to get Jimenez and brought in Matt Belisle. Belisle got Matt Kemp to ground out and walked James Loney intentionally, bringing up Blake for the game's defining moment.
By the Numbers
6 -- Consecutive games in which the Dodgers have hit at least one home run, tying their season high set from May 9-15. Blake's grand slam was the 10th home run the Dodgers have hit in those six games. Before the streak, the Dodgers had hit just one home run in their previous eight games, a two-run shot by Reed Johnson off the Rockies' Jorge De La Rosa on Aug. 19.
Quote of the Day
"I think we're playing pretty good. I like the intensity, and I like the result. The season is so long, with so many ebbs and flows throughout the year. The beauty of sports is in its unpredictability. The beauty of baseball is really is its unpredictability." -- Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti on his club's surge back into apparent playoff contention this week after all appeared to be lost as recently as Sunday, when the Dodgers were eight games behind in the wild-card race and 12 back in the division.
Dodgers right-hander Chad Billingsley (10-7, 3.70) will be making his first start since Aug. 21 after being pushed to the back of the rotation as a precaution because of a mild right-calf strain. He has not pitched at Coors Field, where he has a 6.87 ERA in four career appearances, since September 2008. Rockies right-hander Jhoulys Chacin (6-9, 3.98) shut out the Dodgers on six hits over 7⅓ innings on May 8 at Dodger Stadium but has struggled in two subsequent starts against them, giving up nine earned runs on 12 hits over 10⅓ innings and losing both of them.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
13mJohn Fisher, ESPN Stats & Information