Torre stays cool as things heat up for Dodgers

It’s been almost nine years since Joe Torre stood in the middle of the Yankees clubhouse and aired out his slumping team, but chances are he can still recite every word of that indelicate September wake-up call.

The Bombers held a nine-game lead with 18 to go, and considering they were less than a year removed from a devastating sweep of the Braves in the 1999 World Series, Torre assumed the finish line was in sight.

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Only it wasn’t: the Yankees went 3-15 down the stretch, watching in horror as their lead over the Red Sox shriveled to 2½ games. The near-collapse mystified Torre, as he admitted in The Yankee Years, his memoirs co-written with Tom Verducci.

“I (had) no clue what happened in September,” Torre said. “The second inning we’re down 6-0 every day. I had a meeting before a game in Baltimore when I said, ‘Guys, you want the champagne before the game? Because we keep holding on to this champagne, waiting to clinch, we might as well drink it early.’ I was just trying to do something to relax them.”

His blend of dark humor and gentle reassurance worked to perfection, as the Yankees won their fourth world championship in five years. Yet, it was Torre’s last ring and you wonder if he’s experiencing a subtle déjà vu lately. The Dodgers, who had a 9½ game lead in the West in early June, are only a tick over .500 since the All-Star break.

The bad news? Until this weekend, the Rockies had eclipsed the Dodgers as the National League’s hottest team, creeping to within two games of first place. That is, until Colorado lost 2-of-3 to the Padres, reducing the Dodgers’ magic number to 16.

The good news? The Dodgers underwent a miniature renaissance against the Giants; despite being shut down by former-teammate Brad Penny on Sunday, they nevertheless took 2-of-3, winning the first two games of showdown series by a combined score of 19-4.

The better news? With an 7½-game lead over the Giants, and a three-game series coming up against the last-place Pirates, the Dodgers would have to collapse in unthinkable fashion to miss out on the wild-card berth. That means L.A.’s turbulence has been less about catastrophe than about self-realization.

How the Dodgers finish in their final 18 games will say plenty about Torre’s influence on them. Unlike his tenure in New York, when he could count on the Yankees’ postseason know-how, Torre still hasn’t figured out how his Dodgers will react under intense pressure.

They’re off to a good start in San Francisco, but there are many tests ahead — notably the final weekend of the regular season when the Dodgers host Colorado.

By then, both teams could likely be assured of a postseason berth; the only remaining struggle could be for the division title and the National League’s best record. To think, only three months ago Torre’s Dodgers were using the regular season as calisthenics for October.

Everything was going right for Joe Cool at the All-Star break: Manny Ramirez was back from his 50-game suspension, the starters were holding the National League to a .235 average and the Dodgers were enjoying the major league’s best run-differential (+105)

Torre’s experience in the postseason helped heal the Dodgers after their blowout at the hands of the Phillies in last October’s League Championship Series. The Dodgers weren’t scarred by the five-game loss — to the contrary, they appeared to have actually profited from it.

But if Torre learned one lesson in particular in New York, it’s that sustaining greatness is even more challenging than finding it. Until this weekend, the Dodgers had been unable to stop the Rockies’ surge — a 64-34 run that began when Jim Tracy replaced Clint Hurdle.

A lesser manager would’ve panicked as his first-place lead disappeared. But not Torre. The crescents under his eyes might turn a deeper shade of purple, but otherwise, he doesn’t do anxiety. When asked about the Dodgers’ flat-line second half, Torre simply told the truth.

“We haven’t done anything different the last two or three weeks,” he said. “We won a game, lost a game, won a game, lost a game. We got to 26 games over and lost our last game. We want to build on that. It’s been frustrating, but there hasn’t been any change in our personality.”

Torre, however, isn’t blind to an obvious fact about the Dodgers’ legacy: They’re new at this. When the manager says, “with the Yankees, we could say, ‘We’ll be all right by the time it’s over’ ” he’s implying the Dodgers’ still have to prove how deep their winning pedigree runs.

Until then, Torre knows there’s no Derek Jeter or Mariano Rivera in his clubhouse. The Dodgers’ young stars — Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier — are just that, stars. But are they capable of break-out Octobers?

The Dodgers were heartened to see Hiroki Kuroda’s eight-inning, two-run domination of the Giants on Friday. It was only his second appearance after being struck in the head by a line drive on August 15. Kuroda, who was 2-0 with a 1.46 ERA in last year’s playoffs, is a pivotal figure in the rotation, especially since Randy Wolf and Clayton Kershaw are both injured.

Still, the Dodgers lead the majors with a 3.45 ERA, which fits neatly into Torre’s belief that his team will fare only as well as his hurlers. “It’s always about pitching,” is what Torre likes to say about a pennant race.

A manager’s demeanor counts for plenty, too. So far, Torre has lived up to his side of the bargain — staying cool, keeping it light, making sure the clubhouse remains sane. With the finish line in plain sight, the rest is up to his young Dodgers, whose legacy is waiting to be written.