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.