Commentary

Dodgers embrace postseason urgency

Originally Published: October 7, 2009
By Eric Neel | ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- If you stayed up late, you already know it wasn't much to look at.

Over 3 hours and 56 minutes, the Dodgers and Cardinals hitters combined to leave 30 runners on base while their pitchers combined to walk 13 batters and hit four with wayward pitches.

Los Angeles left-hander Randy Wolf was gone after 3 2/3 innings, and St. Louis ace Chris Carpenter (who had never lost to Los Angeles before Wednesday night) slogged his way through 105 pitches in just five innings.

The Dodgers left the bases loaded three times without cashing in, and the Cards did so twice.

Manny Ramirez managed only one hit and grounded out twice. Albert Pujols couldn't get a ball out of the infield.

But if you're sitting in manager Joe Torre's chair this morning, Game 1 of this National League Division Series, a 5-3 win at home against St. Louis, was a thing of beauty.

His Dodgers, who had stumbled badly down the stretch, attacked Carpenter from the jump, swinging early in counts at balls left up in the zone.

Shortstop Rafael Furcal hit the second pitch he saw, a fastball, on a line to left field. Center fielder Matt Kemp followed suit, driving the first pitch Carpenter threw him over the right-center field wall. And two outs later, first baseman James Loney extended the first inning with a single to center off another Carpenter first-pitch fastball.

[+] EnlargeJoe Torre and Randy Wolf
AP Photo/Jae C. Hong Dodgers manager Joe Torre had a quick hook against the Cardinals on Wednesday. His decision worked out well.

Torre had come into the game talking about patience and approach, about making the Cardinals' elite starters work for their outs. And that's been the Dodgers' routine all year; on average, their hitters see 3.88 pitches per at-bat (fifth-best in baseball in 2009). But early in Game 1 they seemed intent on being aggressive, on not letting Carpenter dictate pace and situation.

Furcal pulled the ball into the right-field corner and legged out a triple in his second at-bat, tried a swinging bunt in his third, and flared a sagging liner down the line while jumping early out of the batter's box, all Ichiro-like, in his last AB in the seventh inning. After the game, he talked about the way the team wanted to grind for every opportunity to make something happen.

Kemp, whose first-inning shot was his first-ever postseason home run (and the first by a Dodgers' center fielder since Jimmy Wynn hit one in 1974), talked about setting a tone.

"We wanted to come out and make a statement," he said afterward. "That it's going to be hard to come in here and just try to push us around, because we're ready to go."

Call it confidence, call it doggedness, call it a sense of urgency -- the Dodgers were pressing the action on the field and from the dugout Wednesday.

In the fourth inning, up 3-2 with the bases loaded, Torre pulled Wolf for reliever Jeff Weaver. It was the first game of the series, but he was making moves like there was no tomorrow.

"I usually have the starter decide his own fate," he explained. "But Don Zimmer taught me that this postseason stuff is all about not being patient, and doing what you feel you need to do at the time you need to do it."

Torre's willingness to pull an early trigger paid off. Weaver, who has been nails with the bases loaded this season (holding opponents to a major league-best 1-for-20), came in and got Cardinals right fielder Ryan Ludwick to bounce back to the mound.

Inning over. Threat ended. Edge maintained. Impatience is a virtue.

This series is a clash between two types of pitching strength. The Cardinals come strong with stud starters -- Carpenter, Adam Wainwright (who will start Game 2 on Thursday) and Joel Pineiro. The Dodgers answer with a lights-out bullpen, which ranks first in the major leagues in ERA (3.14), WHIP (1.26) and batting average against (.230).

By coming right at Carpenter and putting runs on the board early, and by making the move for Weaver in the fourth, they were able to make Game 1 of this series their kind of ballgame. They got to the 'pen, to their strength, to terms they could dictate.

Weaver went 1 1/3 innings and gave up only one hit. Ronald Belisario pitched a flawless sixth. Hong-Chih Kuo struck out two in a scoreless seventh. George Sherrill got two outs in the eighth, and closer Jonathan Broxton got the last four outs to seal the deal.

The talk coming into the night was about how and whether the Dodgers would handle Carpenter, who was 5-0 against them in his career. The script said they were overmatched.

By the end of the night the story was shifting. Now, even as we wonder what the Dodgers will do with Wainwright, we also have to ask: How are the Cards going to make a dent in that L.A. 'pen? What can they do in Game 2 if the Dodgers get out to another early lead?

"We read all the papers. We know nobody was picking us to win a game," Sherrill said with quiet confidence afterward. "Whatever. We just go out there and throw zeroes. That's the mentality."

It's too early to know whether that mentality will be enough for the Dodgers to defeat the Cardinals and advance to the championship series. But it's not too early to say it's given us a division series worth watching.

Eric Neel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.

Eric Neel | email

Page 2 columnist
Eric Neel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.

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