MLB

Bullpen gives Dodgers edge in NLCS rematch

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Mark Kriegel

Mark Kriegel is the national columnist for FOXSports.com. He is the author of two New York Times best sellers, Namath: A Biography and Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich, which Sports Illustrated called "the best sports biography of the year."

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LOS ANGELES

On the eve of the second annual National League Championship Series between the Dodgers and the Phillies, a fiercely insistent crowd assembled around Manny Ramirez's locker. It should be difficult to take him seriously, as his braided dreads strongly suggest the "Star Wars" heroine, Princess Leia. But once again, deadline circumstances have rendered the media horde oblivious to both humor and irony.
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For the record, Ramirez says that the Dodgers are better than they were last year. The Phillies, he adds, are also better. If that's the case, he was asked, then who's the better team? "I think the team that scores more runs." To Ramirez's ever-lasting credit, he seems to be in on the joke. I'd like to think he knows this much: that the idea of baseball players "working out" on a rainy Wednesday in October is almost as absurd as the idea of his locker as a shrine on the path to enlightenment. Nevertheless, in my quest to enlighten you, dear reader, I'll note that only one of these teams is better — substantially better, I think — than it was last year. That would be the Dodgers. If you're handicapping the rematch of last year's NLCS, the advantage belongs to L.A. Yes, the Phillies added an ace in Cliff Lee. Then again, Cole Hamels isn't what he was. A team that just got through Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright can't be too frightened of Lee and Hamels. What's more, a couple of Brad Lidge saves in the division series aren't enough to erase the presumption against Philadelphia's bullpen. As for the Dodgers, you begin with Ramirez, who hit better than .500 last postseason. A year ago, their success was merely the expression of one man's hot bat. In 2009, Ramirez's 50-game suspension yielded great, if unintended, benefits. These Dodgers know they can win without him. His absence afforded certain players — Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp, in particular — a chance to come of age. "They grew a lot," said Ramirez. "I think they're ready to carry the team." Ethier, for his part, wouldn't venture a guess as to how much better they've become. "Joe told me it's not my job to think," he said. But Kemp was less disingenuous. "We're a different team than we were," he said. "We back each other up. We never lose confidence. And we find ways to win ballgames ... It's not a one-man show. It's a team." In keeping with that theme, the most valuable person in the organization may not be a player, or its celebrated skipper, but the general manager, a former sportswriter who took a beating for not throwing another $50 or so million at Ramirez during the offseason. Ned Colletti has done more than provide L.A. with a core of young talent. It's not just the hitters. It's the pitchers, too. Closer Jonathan Broxton and Game 1 starter Clayton Kershaw are all a year better. But more than that, is the way Colletti has replenished the talent during the season. Last year, he acquired Ramirez and Casey Blake. This season, it was Ronnie Belliard, Vicente Padilla and George Sherrill. "The people we've added to this club since last year have a tremendous presence about them," Colletti told FOXSports.com's Jon Morosi the other day. "Once you've been through an LCS, like most of our players did a year ago, you know what to expect at this time of year. I believe we're a better club than a year ago, just overall." To test his claim, survey the pitching staff. Not only is it better than last year, with Kershaw having held his own against Wainwright, it's better than it was last week. In 2008, the Dodgers needed two starts from Chad Billingsley, both losses. In 2009, they don't need him at all. Last week, the capable Randy Wolf was a number one starter. This week, he's number four. Most important, the Dodgers have grown stronger where the Phillies seem diminished — in the bullpen. If you're looking at ERA, the Dodgers' bullpen is the best in the game. With Sherrill, Ronald Belisario and Hong-Chih Kuo (among others), Torre has arms for almost any occasion. Lefty or righty? Seventh or eighth inning? The choice, said Torre, "is insignificant for us." He can mix and match. "We've got four guys who could close on other teams," said Broxton, who counts the relief corps as the team's biggest area of improvement. The bullpen, he declared, "is our strength." It's worth noting that, on a team with four qualified closers, Broxton is the one. I wondered what benefit he could possibly derive from a league-mandated "workout day." Broxton goes six-four, about 300 pounds and regularly throws in excess of 100 mph. A year later, he added, "I've learned to trust my stuff." More great news for the Phillies.
Tagged: Dodgers, Phillies, Cardinals, Manny Ramirez, Casey Blake, Chris Carpenter, Vicente Padilla, Randy Wolf, Brad Lidge, Cliff Lee, George Sherrill, Cole Hamels, Adam Wainwright, Jonathan Broxton, Andre Ethier, Chad Billingsley, Matt Kemp, Clayton Kershaw, Ronald Belisario

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