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DODGERS GET ASSIST FROM AN OLD FRIEND VALDEZ FALLS APART IN L.A. POUNDING DODGERS 12, SAN DIEGO 2.

Byline: Tony Jackson Staff Writer

Anyone who can remember the Dodgers' last two playoff appearances, back in 1995 and '96, undoubtedly can remember Ismael Valdez. The strapping right-hander won a total of 28 games for them those two seasons, and proved in the years thereafter to be a reliable constant for an organization that otherwise seemed bent on self-destruction.

If the Dodgers finally make it back to the postseason this year - and if Saturday night's 12-2 pounding of the San Diego Padres, before a sellout crowd of 52,217 at Dodger Stadium, proves to be a pivotal step along the way - then the case can be made that Valdez again will have helped them get there.

Valdez, who signed with the Padres as a free agent last winter, made the textbook mistake of trying to go home again. The Dodgers, predictably, taught him the textbook lesson that you can't do that, especially under the hot lights of a pennant race.

The Dodgers torched Valdez for eight runs on 11 hits over four innings. They jumped on him early, getting hits from three of their first four batters in the first inning and then a sacrifice fly to take an early, two-run lead; and often, threatening to pad their lead in the second and third innings before exploding for six runs in the fourth.

That game-clinching rally was capped by Adrian Beltre's 27th home run, a no-doubt grand slam into the leftfield pavilion that gave the Dodgers an 8-1 lead.

It wasn't exactly a show of gratitude for all Valdez had done for the Dodgers during his career. But all's fair in love, war and tight division races, and frankly, the Dodgers were getting tired of all those thrilling but nerve-wracking late-inning comebacks.

So, they won this one the easy way. Valdez was just an innocent bystander.

The Dodgers (57-39) moved a season-high 18 games over .500 and maintained their 3 1/2-game lead over San Francisco in the National League West. The Padres fell 4 1/2 back and out of what had been a second-place tie with the Giants, who won at St. Louis.

The Dodgers now have won 9 of 10 since the All-Star break and 20 of their past 24 since snapping a six-game losing streak on June 27.

Wilson Alvarez (5-3), making his second start in place of injured rookie Edwin Jackson, fairly cruised through seven innings - with a good bit of help from right fielder Juan Encarnacion.

Alvarez began the game by giving up consecutive singles to Sean Burroughs and Mark Loretta. After Brian Giles grounded into a force at third and Phil Nevin struck out, Ryan Klesko launched a drive to deep right that looked like it might put the Dodgers in a big hole before they ever came to bat. But Encarnacion planted under it on the warning track and timed his leap perfectly, catching the ball above the top of the wall to rob Klesko of a three-run homer.

The Dodgers took a 2-0 lead in the first on an RBI single by Beltre and a sacrifice fly by Milton Bradley, but Alvarez gave one back in the third after hitting Burroughs with one out. Mark Loretta singled Burroughs to third, and Giles brought him home with a sacrifice fly, making it 2-1. Alvarez struck out Nevin again to strand Loretta on third.

With two outs in the fourth, Jay Payton lifted a blooper into shallow right field that looked like it would fall between Encarnacion and second baseman Alex Cora. But at the last second, Encarnacion went airborne, parallel to the ground, to snare it, ending the inning.

Encarnacion was given a loud ovation on his way off the field.

The Dodgers now have won six of eight from the Padres this season, including the first two of this critical, three-game series to begin a pivotal stretch in the division race. But if the Dodgers continue to win at their pace of the past four weeks, this stretch won't be so pivotal for long. A three-game sweep would be devastating to the Padres if the Dodgers can complete it this afternoon, even with the two teams slated to meet again next weekend in San Diego.

Tony Jackson,(818) 713-3675

tony.jackson(at)dailynews.com

CAPTION(S):

2 photos, box

Photo:

(1 -- color) Adrian Beltre continued his sizzling season with a fourth-inning grand slam against San Diego on Saturday.

(2) Juan Encarnacion dives for a ball against San Diego on Saturday.

John Lazar/Staff Photographer

Box:

GAME RECAP
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jul 25, 2004
Words:756
Previous Article:NO MAGIC NEEDED, JUST ENCARNACION UNSUNG OUTFIELDER LEADS BLOWOUT WIND DODGERS 12, SAN DIEGO 2.
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