BEIRNE IN PRESSURE SITUATION.
DENVER - Their pitching has been so good for so long this baseball summer, their rotation so healthy and hardy in the rising heat of the pennant race, it's hard to believe the Dodgers have come to this.
Tonight, in mid-September, they hand the ball to somebody named Kevin Beirne and ask him to keep the playoff wild card from slipping away.
Kevin Beirne, who is one vowel, one consonant and 181 major-league victories away from being Kevin Brown. Kevin Beirne, who takes a 6.50 lifetime ERA up against the opponents' ace, against the world's hardest-hitting lineup, against the world's toughest pitching park. Kevin Beirne, who previews his first Dodgers start in the humble tones of a chimney sweep beginning a private tour of Buckingham Palace.
``It's an honor,'' he kept saying Thursday before watching the Dodgers just get outplayed by the Colorado Rockies and lose 7-1 in the rain-delayed opener of a four-game series at Coors Field.
An honor to be a 28-year-old, on his third club after a trade and a release, carrying a Dodgers playoff bid on his right arm.
``I know how much tradition there is (in Los Angeles),'' said Beirne, a native of Houston. ``I know about Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax. I've been in Vero Beach and seen Kirk Gibson's picture on the wall. It kind of gives you chills to think you're pitching where those guys did.''
In a pennant race in September, when those guys did.
``Hopefully, I go out there and get ahead and use our great defense, and either (catcher Chad) Kreuter or (Paul) Lo Duca calls a great game,'' said Beirne, whose name is pronounced burn, trying to turn down the temperature. ``You can't expect to throw a no-hitter.''
It's his second major-league start.
In September 2000, when he was a Chicago White Sox rookie, he was given the modest assignment of facing Pedro Martinez with the Boston Red Sox in the wild-card race. He is proud to say he pitched well. Five innings, two hits, three runs. Pedro, of course, pitched better.
``(Tonight) is the same kind of deal,'' Beirne said of getting thrown into the fire.
Only tonight, pitching well enough to lose won't do Beirne or the Dodgers any good, not when the playoffs hang on every result with 16 left on the schedule.
Beirne needs to be this pennant race's unlikely Dodgers hero, this year's Dick Nen, R.J. Reynolds, Jack Fimple or Chad Fonville.
You can always sound baseball-savvy when somebody asks whether the local team can go places if you answer, ``We'll see if the pitching holds up.''
For five months, it appeared the Dodgers' might.
They were making it through the season using only six starters, adding Omar Daal to the rotation after Brown went down with injuries. The staff ERA was lower than anybody's in the National League's except Atlanta's. The pitchers were carrying the lineup of Shawn Green and the seven dwarfs.
Then, cracks appeared, figuratively and literally. Andy Ashby developed an infection in a finger and hasn't appeared since Sept. 4. Kazuhisa Ishii got conked on the head by a line drive and won't appear again this season. Odalis Perez struggled and Daal lost his second start in a row Wednesday. Brown tries to pitch himself into postseason form. The consistent brilliance of Hideo Nomo won't be enough.
Beirne replaces Ishii.
It's so last year, when injuries forced the Dodgers to use a dozen starting pitchers, among them Jeff Williams, Dennis Springer and Terry Mulholland.
It's so this April, when there were question marks up and down the Dodgers' rotation, from post-surgery Brown and Ashby to the young Perez to the erratic Ishii.
``The (starters') names I write down and erase, and write down and erase, they look as good to me as the guys we're competing against,'' manager Jim Tracy said confidently Wednesday.
Tonight, Tracy writes down Kevin Beirne, who's 1-0 in nine relief appearances for the Dodgers after going 10-3 for Class-AAA Las Vegas, whom his old Chicago general manager Dan Evans sent him after spring training with an emergency like this in mind. It won't be easy for Tracy to grip a pen with his fingers crossed. Colorado starts 16-7 Jason Jennings.
Beirne, 6-foot-4, with a rugged red beard beneath friendly features, was a Texas A&M wide receiver. Beirne's father, Jim, caught passes for the Houston Oilers and San Diego Chargers. Kevin was recruited by an Aggies offensive coordinator named Bob Toledo.
Beirne switched from the outfield to pitching in part because a pitcher's schedule melded better with his football. He said he didn't begin to learn to pitch until he was 21 and in pro ball. And he's still catching playing catch-up.
Ask the Dodgers' pitching coach about Beirne and the first thing Jim Colborn said is that he's ``a guy that's never gotten much of a chance in the big leagues.''
He's about to get it.
The faltering Dodgers need him to make the most of it.