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SAITO TRULY WELCOME NINTH-INNING HEROICS BY CLOSER SAVE L.A. DODGERS 5, SAN FRANCISCO 2.

Byline: TONY JACKSON Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO -- He hasn't set any unbreakable major-league records and doesn't speak much English, so he isn't the darling of the Dodgers' marketing department. He hasn't chosen a favorite heavy metal tune to blast throughout the stadium whenever he bolts through the bullpen gate, so he isn't a favorite of the club's in-game entertainment people, either.

Takashi Saito's worst transgression, it seems, is the fact his name isn't Eric Gagne.

The result has been a season-long perception that Saito, the Japanese import who didn't make the team out of spring training and was slated for middle relief when he was promoted to the majors in early April, is nothing more than an accidental closer. Just a guy who stumbled into the job after Gagne and Yhency Brazoban got hurt and Danys Baez got knocked around.

But Sunday, in the ninth inning of what for the Dodgers was a monumental, 5-2 victory over the San Francisco Giants in front of a sellout crowd of 42,052 at AT&T Park, Saito officially shattered that Plan D image and solidified himself as a bona fide major-league closer. The kind of cool customer to whom manager Grady Little can feel perfectly secure entrusting late-inning leads in the heat of a pennant race, and possibly beyond.

For that opportunity, Saito can thank teammate Jeff Kent.

The prickly second baseman botched two plays in the ninth, only one of which was ruled an error. Both conspired to ruin Derek Lowe's shutout bid and let the Giants back into a game they had appeared hopelessly out of.

With the bases loaded, none out and a run already in, Saito took the ball from Lowe and went to work. He struck out Steve Finley after a spirited at-bat. He got ahead of Barry Bonds, who was pinch-hitting after sitting out the first eight innings with back stiffness. Saito wasn't willing to give him anything to hit and wound up walking him to force in another run.

With the mostly Dodgers-hating crowd now on its feet, Saito bore down and struck out Pedro Feliz and Eliezer Alfonzo in succession, punctuating his 14th save in 15 opportunities with an animated leap off the mound and pump of his fist.

With that, the first-place Dodgers had taken two of three from the last-place Giants, burying them seven games deep in the NL West standings, and Saito had proved he still had the intestinal fortitude that carried him to 47 saves over a two-year stretch for Japan's Yokohama Baystars before he went back to starting in 2003.

``This was my toughest situation this season,'' Saito said, speaking through an interpreter.

Saito proved to be tougher. And for that, no one was more grateful than Kent. And Lowe. And Little.

``I don't know how you can overlook what he has done,'' Little said. ``He has been lights-out nearly every time out there. He throws strikes. He hardly ever misses his location. This guy hits his spots, and he has good movement. That's what makes him difficult to hit, his movement and that pinpoint location he has.''

Saito's only blown save came Aug. 10 against Colorado, when Todd Helton led off the ninth with a triple and scored the tying run when Kent tried to cut him down at third but threw the ball into the photo well next to the dugout. The run wound up being earned because Garrett Atkins followed with a flyball that would have scored Helton anyway, but the Dodgers won the game in the bottom of the inning and Saito got the victory.

An hour after Saito's latest escape, the Dodgers' lead in the West increased to a season-high four games when San Diego beat Arizona. The Padres and Diamondbacks are tied for second. Each will play host to the Dodgers for a three-game series this week, beginning tonight in San Diego.

J.D. Drew's two-run homer in the first inning staked Lowe (11-8) to an early lead. From there, Lowe exploited the Giants' tendency to swing early in counts and cruised through eight innings on fewer than 100 pitches, allowing only five hits. After escaping a second-and-third, one-out jam in the third that began with his own throwing error, Lowe retired 13 consecutive batters and 18 of 19 to get through the eighth.

Randy Winn led off the ninth with a grounder to the right of Kent, who got a glove on it but couldn't hold on. Omar Vizquel followed with an easy double-play grounder, but it went through Kent's legs and scooted into the outfield, setting up the dramatic climax.

tony.jackson@dailynews.com

(818) 713-3675

CAPTION(S):

3 photos

Photo:

(1) Dodgers closer Takashi Saito celebrates after striking out the side in the ninth inning to earn his 14th save in 15 chances.

(2) Dodgers outfielder J.D. Drew gets a hand from third-base coach Gene Glynn after hitting a two-run home run in the first inning off Giants starter Matt Morris. It was Drew's 12th of the year.

(3) Dodgers starter Derek Lowe mostly cruised through eight innings, but a couple of late errors jeopardized his victory

Dino Vournas/Associated Press
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 21, 2006
Words:862
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