Dodgers find rhythm at right time
LOS ANGELES -- If you're looking for that one moment the Dodgers turned their season around. That one trade, that one signing that one managerial decision that transformed this bunch from playoff outsiders to the first team to advance to the Championship Series you won't find it.
"Its right here, no question," says Don Mattingly grinning from ear to ear and bouncing up and down like a 47-year-old hitting coach trying to dance to hip-hop after the Dodgers beat the Cubs 3-1 to sweep their NLDS series and advance to their first NLCS since 1988. "It was this song. I don't know what it is, but I like it."
As Mattingly closed his eyes and bent his knees to the rhythm of M.I.A.'s Paper Planes, saying "Stay in the box baby, just stay in the box," De Jon Watson, the Dodgers' director of player development laughed and said, "What? Do you listen to this song on the eight-track in your car?"
Dodgers third baseman Casey Blake played the song prior to the team's 6-2 win over Arizona on Aug. 30 after the team was on an eight-game losing streak. The song was played from then on, before and after games, as the Dodgers went on an eight-game winning streak and won 22 of their last 30 games.
"When you hear this song it's a good thing," said Blake as the song blasted in the clubhouse for the umpteenth time on a loop. "That mean's we're about to go win a game or we've won a game."
As the Dodgers cheered wildly every time the song was played, manager Joe Torre simply smiled as he walked out of the clubhouse to address the crowd, which uncharacteristically arrived about an hour early and stayed about an hour after Jonathan Broxton struck out Alfonso Soriano to officially end the Cubs season, their 100th without a World Series, despite recording the best record in the National League this season.
Torre got a big hug from Tommy Lasorda, who was on the field after the game, before he spoke to the crowd. It was fitting since it was the Dodgers' first playoff series win since capturing the 1988 World Series. In fact, before this postseason, the Dodgers had only won one playoff game in the last 20 years, a 4-0 win over the St. Louis Cardinals in '04 that merely prevented the Dodgers from suffering four playoff sweeps since '88.
In many ways, the Dodgers' 20-year playoff series winning drought has been more surprising than the Cubs' 100-year World Series drought. The Cubs, after all, have always been known as the "Lovable Losers." "The Curse of the Billy Goat" is as synonymous with Chicago as the Sears Tower and Oprah Winfrey. The Dodgers, however, were always known as winners. Well, at least they were when the likes of Truman, Nixon and Reagan were in office. From 1941-88, they won 16 NL pennants and six World Series titles, never going more than eight years without appearing in a World Series.
The Dodgers spent much of their time away from the postseason watching teams like the Yankees, Red Sox and Braves with familiar faces Joe Torre, Manny Ramirez and Greg Maddux rule October and it was no coincidence that the trio was wearing Dodgers blue as Los Angeles headed to its first NLCS in two decades. Torre has been the steady rock the Dodgers' clubhouse has lacked since Lasorda stepped down in '96, ushering in a 10-year period when the team went through five managers after having only two the previous 42 years in Lasorda and Walter Alston.
Ramirez has exceeded even the most optimistic fan's wildest expectations since arriving in L.A. Before joining the Dodgers, Ramirez was hitting .299 with 20 home runs and 68 RBIs in 100 games for the Red Sox and was thought to be a dreadlocked clubhouse cancer. In 53 games with the Dodgers, Ramirez, with his neatly trimmed mane, is hitting .396 with 17 HRs and 53 RBIs while leading the Dodgers to only their third NL West title since '88. Much like he did in Boston when he helped the Red Sox to two World Series titles, Ramirez has only gotten better in the playoffs. He hit two home runs in Chicago to add to his major league-record 26 career postseason home runs and forced Cubs manager Lou Piniella to pitch around him Saturday night.
Prior to the game as Torre sat in his office, he smiled as he told reporters that he had a good feeling about the game. Not because of any on-field strategy, but because his 2-year-old colt, Vineyard Haven, won the Grade I $400,000 Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park, earning an automatic berth into the $2-million Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita on Oct. 25. "Hopefully, it's a good sign," said Torre.
He would later get several early on-field signs that the Dodgers would be having a champagne celebration outside of his office by the end of the night. James Loney, who hit the series-turning grand slam in Game 1, hit a two-run double in the first inning to give the Dodgers a 2-0 lead they would add on to in the fifth inning when Russell Martin doubled to deep left to score Rafael Furcal.
While the scoring output wasn't what it was in Chicago, it didn't need to be as veteran right-hander Hiroki Kuroda pitched a gem in his first postseason game of his 12-year professional -- the past 11 spent pitching for the Hiroshima Carp of the Japanese League. Kuroda, who missed Game 2 in Chicago as Torre allowed him to go home early to get some rest, pitched 6 1/3 innings, allowing no runs on six hits and didn't allow the early hits to fluster him as he has done at times this season.
After the game, while Derek Lowe was showering teammates with champagne, he hushed everyone momentarily and told them to look at the television in the clubhouse.
"Look everyone, it's Big Joe," he said, pointing at Torre talking to the crowd. "Look at Big Joe out there talking to everyone."
As Torre spoke to the crowd, Lowe said, "He's a true leader and he's turned this franchise back where it should be. He might not say it publicly, but I know he feels a lot of gratification to come here in one year and do what he's done and ..." Before Lowe could finish his answer, he and his teammates were once again distracted by the squad's new theme song as they jumped up and down.
Every stop I get to I'm clocking that game/Everyone's a winner now we're making that fame/Bonafide hustler making my name
"I don't think we'll ever get tired of this song," he said. "Hopefully we can hear it eight more times."