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Believe in the Dodgers ... or don't

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Ken Rosenthal

Ken Rosenthal has been the FOXSports.com's Senior MLB Writer since August 2005. He appears weekly on MLB on FOX, FOX Sports Radio and MLB Network. He's a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Follow him on Twitter.

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The Dodgers, winners of 17 of their last 25 games, are playing nearly as well as they did in April and May. Their plus-179 run differential is by far the best in the majors, and their lead over the Phillies for home-field advantage in the National League playoffs is 2½ games.
Yet, the Dodgers' lack of dominant starting pitching almost certainly means that they will be underdogs in the Division Series against the Phillies or Cardinals. Here are three reasons why the Dodgers still loom as a viable threat to reach the World Series — and three reasons why they might get knocked out quickly.

Reasons to believe

1. Serious relief

Manager Joe Torre's bullpen is better than the Phillies', better than the Cardinals', better than any National League team's. The Dodgers lead the NL in bullpen ERA by nearly a half-run per game, and also are first in opponents' OPS by a healthy margin. The return of left-hander Hong-Chih Kuo on July 27, combined with the trade for lefty George Sherrill on July 30, enabled the Dodgers to move their two overworked righties, Ramon Troncoso and Ron Belisario, into less-prominent roles. The Dodgers' starters rarely pitch deep into games, but with this bullpen, five or six innings is usually enough. Consider:
  • Closer Jonathan Broxton is averaging 13.69 strikeouts per nine innings, the highest rate of any major-league reliever. He has converted 10 straight chances and pitched 19 innings since allowing his last earned run.

    Jim Thome, in a pinch?

    Jim Thome, 1-for-9 as a pinch-hitter since joining the Dodgers, has no regrets. "If I had watched these guys celebrate in October, that would have eaten at me," Thome says. "Nobody knows what's going to happen. But you've got to give yourself that chance." Thome did just that on Aug. 31, waiving his no-trade clause to leave the White Sox and assume a pinch-hitting role with the Dodgers. Spending another month as the White Sox's designated hitter would have put Thome in better position to chip away at the 36 home runs he needs for 600. Thome, however, has never won a World Series. He has appeared in two, losing with the Indians in both 1995 and '97. "That thing on the finger . . ." Thome says, referring to a World Series championship ring. " . . . I've been close, as close as you can get, two outs away (in '97). It was a tough thing to swallow. And it's very addicting to come back." So addicting, Thome was willing to assume a largely foreign role just to get another chance. Before joining the Dodgers, he had batted only 65 times as a pinch-hitter in his 21-year career. Jason Giambi, another veteran who had spent his entire career in the AL, has thrived in a similar capacity with the Rockies, going 6-for-15 with two home runs and 11 RBIs. Thome has yet to find a similar groove. "I have a new sense of respect for guys that have done this," he says. "You've got to be ready to go. It's a challenge. But that said, it's also exciting. In the situation you're in, you can do things to change the game." That still can happen, maybe in the National League playoffs, maybe if the Dodgers reach the World Series and Thome gets additional opportunities as a DH. He still remembers '97, the blown save by Indians closer Jose Mesa in the ninth inning of Game 7, the game-winning hit by the Marlins' Edgar Renteria in the 11th. "That seems like yesterday," Thome says, snapping his fingers. "Now as I'm older, I understand. "My window is shrinking. I'll be 40 years old next year. That shouldn't be a factor if you stay in shape, keep yourself strong. But you don't play forever. You don't play forever."

    — Ken Rosenthal, FOXSports.com

  • Sherrill, the eighth-inning setup man, has allowed one run in 22 1/3 innings as a Dodger.
  • Kuo, who missed nearly three months with elbow trouble, has allowed one run in his last 17 1/3 innings.
  • Belisario, who missed a month with a strained right elbow, has allowed one run in 18 1/3 innings since coming off the disabled list Aug. 8.

    2. Offensive potential

    The Dodgers rank third in the NL in scoring behind the Phillies and Rockies, and they will need to grab early leads in the postseason to put their bullpen to maximum advantage. Leadoff man Rafael Furcal is surging at just the right time; his on-base percentage in September is .381. When the Dodgers click, their lineup is very good. Right fielder Andre Ethier and center fielder Matt Kemp are emerging as stars. Catcher Russell Martin, the No. 8 hitter of late, has a .354 OBP. And left fielder Manny Ramirez is warming, but more on him in a moment. Ethier, the team leader with 31 homers, 41 doubles and 102 RBIs, has become one of the game's most impressive clutch hitters, "hunting for situations," in the words of general manager Ned Colletti. His six walk-off hits are the most by any player since at least 1974, and four of those hits were homers. Kemp, in the opinion of one scout, is the closest thing to Dave Winfield in the game today. He still has holes offensively, still is prone to chase bad pitches on occasion. But, like Winfield, he is athletic enough to overcome his deficiencies, the scout says, and his plate discipline is much improved. Here's the scary part: He is only 25. Ramirez, you ask? He isn't what he was in the final two months of last season, but perhaps no other mortal could be. While Ramirez's OPS in September is a robust .973, his numbers with runners in scoring position are more telling. Ramirez has batted .276-.455-.431 in those situations since returning from his suspension on July 1, according to STATS LLC. After joining the Dodgers last season, his RISP line in a comparable number of plate appearances was a staggering .463-.629-.829. If Manny gets back to being Manny, or something close to it, the Dodgers' offense would be at least as formidable as the Phillies' or Cardinals'. And even with Manny meandering in left, the Dodgers rank second in the majors in defensive efficiency, a statistic that measures the percentage of balls in play that get converted into outs.

    3. Bench strength

    Let's just say Torre has options. Second baseman Ron Belliard is the Dodgers' flavor of the moment, providing the same type of lift that Marlon Anderson gave the club in Sept. 2006, enabling Torre to rest his regular, Orlando Hudson. The rest of the bench is a who's who of former regulars and classy professionals, from pinch-hitter Jim Thome to outfielder Juan Pierre, infielder Mark Loretta to catcher Brad Ausmus to infielder Juan Castro. Torre will not necessarily need to use his bench often in the postseason. But he will be protected if he wants to double-switch, if one of his regulars is injured or ineffective, if a game goes to extra innings. Oh, and in the World Series, Thome would make a pretty fair DH.

    Reasons to worry

    1. Game 1

    Left-hander Randy Wolf is a fine pitcher, 11-6 with a 3.24 ERA this season. But you wouldn't bet on him against Cardinals right-hander Chris Carpenter or either of the Phillies' top lefties, Cliff Lee or Cole Hamels. The seeming mismatch in Game 1 could put the Dodgers in an immediate hole, but securing the league's best record and opening at Dodger Stadium would help; the Dodgers' 48-30 home record is the best in the NL. Wolf, 33, has continued pitching effectively despite working 203 innings, his most since 2002. He produced a quality start against the Cardinals this season and one quality start and one clunker against the Phillies. While he has never pitched in the postseason, he is an even-keeled type who is unlikely to be overwhelmed.

    2. Rotation issues

    The Dodgers' rotation beyond Wolf is far from set. Left-hander Clayton Kershaw, recovering from a dislocated non-throwing shoulder, made his first appearance since Sept. 4 on Tuesday night, closing out the Dodgers' 14-2 victory over the Nationals by striking out four in two scoreless innings. Kershaw, if healthy, remains a logical choice for Game 2, assuming Torre would opt for a 21-year-old in a spot he normally reserved for veteran Andy Pettitte with the Yankees. Torre's other option, righty Hiroki Kuroda, has produced three straight quality starts and amounts to a fresh arm after missing significant time with a concussion and left oblique strain. But both the Phillies and Cardinals are more vulnerable to left-handers. The Dodgers would love for righty Chad Billingsley to improve his delivery and regain his confidence Wednesday night against the Nationals, but cannot count on it happening. Right-handers Vicente Padilla and Jon Garland would be the other options for Game 4.

    3. Matchup blues

    One Dodgers player, when asked which team he preferred to play in the Division Series, said the Phillies. When I countered that the Cardinals struggle against left-handed pitching — a possible advantage for the Dodgers — the player said, "Well, we don't hit their guys, either." True enough — Carpenter and fellow righties Adam Wainwright and Joel Pineiro have combined to allow only six runs in 38 innings against the Dodgers this season for a 1.42 ERA. Problem is, the Dodgers' numbers against the Phillies' Hamels are not any better — one run in 16 innings this season, three runs in 14 innings against him in last year's NLCS. Lee made his only start against the Dodgers as a member of the Indians in 2008, allowing one run in 7 1/3 innings — pre-Manny. The Dodgers' problem, no matter which team they play first, is that their opponent will hold a starting-pitching edge in virtually every game. The question is whether the Dodgers will be good enough in other areas to overcome their disadvantage. So far, they have been good enough to win 91 games.
  • Tagged: Chris Carpenter, Edgar Renteria, Jon Garland, Cliff Lee, Matt Kemp, Ramon Troncoso, Andy Pettitte, Clayton Kershaw, George Sherrill, White Sox, Russell Martin, Indians, Dodgers, Hong-Chih Kuo, Juan Pierre, Nationals, Yankees, Phillies, Manny Ramirez, Cardinals, Giants, Hiroki Kuroda, Jonathan Broxton, Rafael Furcal, Joel Pineiro, Ramon Castro, Andre Ethier, Jim Thome, Chad Billingsley, Adam Wainwright, Vicente Padilla, Randy Wolf, Orlando Hudson

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