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BREAKING THE RIGHT WAY.

Byline: KEVIN MODESTI

SAN FRANCISCO - Their wild-card ticket punched and their first-round playoff destination set, the Dodgers could trace the route from here to a pennant and marvel Sunday at how close it looks on the baseball's new topographical map.

It wasn't only in the AT&T Park visitors' clubhouse, all picked up after the wild-card clinching party the day before, that a case could be heard for the Dodgers to go farther than they have since the 1988 World Series championship. Or even to go the distance again. Should L.A. dare to dream?

Steve Finley was the grand-slam hero of the Dodgers' last clinching two years ago and watched them over the weekend as a Giant.

He was asked about his old team's chances now that the first-round matchups have been determined and the Dodgers are off to New York to open a best-of-five series against the Mets on Wednesday, the winner to get the Cardinals-Padres winner.

``This year, more than most, there's a lot of parity in the National League,'' Finley said before a Dodgers B team beat a Giants see-ya team 4-3 in Game 162 on Sunday afternoon. ``There's really no (one) team. The Mets have a great offense, but now Pedro (Martinez) is injured and that hurts their pitching. The Cardinals have (No. 1 pitcher Chris) Carpenter, but beyond that they're struggling.

``You really only go as far as your pitching in the playoffs. The Dodgers have the deepest rotation. The Dodgers probably have the deepest team right now, them and the Padres.

``When you're playing good baseball over a long stretch, you just feel like it's going to continue right into the playoffs.''

Where have you gone, Jose Lima?

The Dodgers are a long way from 2004, when they stumbled into the playoffs losers of 11 of their last 21 and needed the desperate comeback win capped by Finley's Game 161 grand slam to hold off the Giants for the division. Lima pitched them to their only playoff win against the Cardinals.

Stunningly, after the 2006 Dodgers went into the final week trailing in the division and wild-card standings and with little going for them beyond a knack for defying linear-thinking prognosticators, they finish the season as the hottest team in all of ball. Forty-one wins in 60 games since July 27 and seven wins in a row are the best in the major leagues.

It's axiomatic that teams' playoff-clinching celebrations reflect how they feel about the future as much as their emotions about what they've accomplished. The Dodgers' wild champagne party after Saturday's ninth-inning rally eliminated Philadelphia from the wild-card race told me they feel like big playoff threats.

``Too much magic going on here,'' said James Loney, the rookie first baseman who hit another home run Sunday filling in for Nomar Garciaparra. ``I think we have the right (ingredients) here.''

The case for the Dodgers to be the fourth wild card in fiveyears to win a World Series -- or at least get their first series win or pennant since '88 -- begins with a simple, declarative, ``Why not them?''

While the Dodgers' weaknesses and bad breaks keep turning into surprising strengths, the league's other playoff teams face some kind of reverse momentum.

The Mets were lapping the league for most of the season but lost Pedro Martinez this week, worry about injuries to Carlos Delgado, Carlos Beltran and Cliff Floyd, and had some bad clubhouse moments recently when Lastings Milledge mouthed off to a veteran and teammates put a sign on Milledge's locker reading, ``Know your place, rook.''

The Cardinals, 12 games better than the Dodgers in July, ended up five games worse as they backed into the Central title, and must count on a turnaround from Carpenter after he gave up 12 runs over his past two starts.

It's looking like a Padres-Dodgers series for the pennant, and this time SanDiego brings in Trevor Hoffman at the start of the ninth.

The Dodgers go into the playoffs riding a San Francisco wind of something between pluck and blind luck.

For the third day in a row, they beat the Giants with a Wiffle Ball hit, Julio Lugo's soft single to right scoring Jason Repko in the seventh.

Too much magic? Or too much to expect it to continue?

``We've been a streaky team all year,'' manager Grady Little said before Sunday's game. ``Right now, we're in one of those (positive) streaks, and we need to keep playing good baseball.''

Little amended that after the game: ``If I was anyone else, I wouldn't want to play the Dodgers.''

It gets down to little things now for the manager seeking vindication for what happened in Boston. He'll pitch Derek Lowe against Orlando Hernandez in Game 1, a no-brainer; Hong-Chih Kuo against Tom Glavine in Game2, because the Mets hate left-handers and Brad Penny is a 262-pound question mark; and Greg Maddux against (presumably) Steve Trachsel in Game 3 at Dodger Stadium, where Maddux has been great.

Not too hard to see it working out for the Dodgers yet again. They have problems, such as the bullpen when the starters come up short. But what Kenny Lofton said of the weary 'pen sounds like their general view of their World Series chances.

``Need 11 wins,'' Lofton said. ``That's it.''

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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 2, 2006
Words:891
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