Young Dodgers are showing confidence of veteran team
CHICAGO -- As he grabbed his suitcase and headed for the clubhouse door following the Dodgers' 10-3 pasting of the Cubs on Thursday night, Los Angeles center fielder Matt Kemp had a few words for the Wrigley Field clubhouse attendant.
"See you next year," Kemp said.
The clubhouse guy, bending over to pick up a roll of tape, clearly heard Kemp but in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way asked, "Whaaaat?"
Kemp didn't hesitate hammering his point home. "Don't start that. You heard me. We'll see you next year."
The message was clear. After back-to-back blowout victories over the Cubs, the team many considered the best in the National League, the Dodgers have every intention of ending this series on the West Coast and playing in their first NL Championship Series in 20 years.
To do so, they will continue to ride not only the blistering-hot bat of Manny Ramirez, but also the consistent contributions from a core of young players. Wednesday night, it was 24-year-old first baseman James Loney belting a fifth-inning grand slam that sucked the air out of Wrigley like it was a punctured balloon. Thursday night, it was 25-year-old catcher Russell Martin smacking a bases-clearing double to break the game open in the second.
And it was 24-year-old right-hander Chad Billingsley delivering 6 2/3 innings of five-hit, one-run, seven-strikeout baseball in his first postseason start.
No, these aren't your father's Los Angeles Dodgers. They're not even your big brother's. The Baby Blue Crew has pushed names like Nomar, Kent and Pierre to the bench and shipped Hall of Famer Greg Maddux to the back of the bullpen. And yet, with little or no postseason experience, they're smacking around the Chicago Cubs in this NL Division Series like it's a spring training warm-up against a college team.
"We've got a bunch of young guys who work hard and are pretty hungry," Kemp said. "We might not have the résumés of some of the big-name guys everyone has heard about, but we have all the confidence in the world that we can get the job done. And so far in this series, we've been able to do just that."
And on Thursday, it was Billingsley who made the Dodgers' 5-0 second-inning lead stick.
"That's what he does," Martin said. "He's a nasty at-bat. You can ask anybody. He's just not fun to face. He doesn't give in and give you anything to hit."
It didn't take Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt long to realize Billingsley had the potential to be dominant Thursday night. About five minutes of warm-up tosses in the bullpen did the trick. There, Honeycutt realized Billingsley had life on his fastball, control of all four of his pitches and the confidence of David Wright walking into a singles bar.
"He was just very focused, very controlled and had a real nice tempo about him," Honeycutt said. "You could just tell that he wasn't very nervous and was all business. And he took that right out there with him."
Even in the first inning, when Alfonso Soriano singled and reached second on a wild pitch and some 42,000 frenzied Cubs fans tried to send him home by screaming their lungs out, Billingsley calmly struck out Ryan Theriot and Derrek Lee before coaxing Cubs cleanup hitter Aramis Ramirez into a harmless fly ball to center.
"After Sori got to second base, it just looked like everything slowed down for him," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "And striking out Theriot I'm sure helped his confidence and certainly made me feel good."
The Cubs had first and third with two outs in the seventh when Billingsley exited, but it was yet another young Dodger, 25-year-old rookie reliever Cory Wade, who closed the door, getting Kosuke Fukudome to ground into a fielder's choice to end the inning and then retiring the Cubs in order in the eighth.
And just like that, the Los Angeles Dodgers head home to California with a commanding 2-0 lead in this best-of-five series. Sure, Manny Ramirez has hit a pair of majestic home runs and is a constantly looming presence in the Dodgers' lineup. But Los Angeles wouldn't be where it is if it weren't for the kids.
After Thursday's win, the kids weren't jumping up and down in the bowels of Wrigley Field or blasting rap music on the clubhouse boom box. About the only one of the kid Dodgers to show exuberance was Kemp, who briefly skipped his way from the dugout to the staircase that leads to the visitors' clubhouse.
"I just want to go home," he said later. "I'm ready to get out of here and head home."
And hopefully not come back until next year.
Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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