LOS ANGELES -- It's been quite a journey for Jose Lima.
Once a 20-game winner, the exuberant right-hander arrived at the Dodgers' Spring Training facilities in Vero Beach, Fla., without a Major League contract -- a veteran with playoff experience and over seven years in the Majors, sharing a page deep in the team's media guide with a pitcher who had pitched just 24 innings.
Eight months later, all eyes are on Lima, the Dodgers' Roberto Clemente Award winner, who takes the mound in the most important game played at Dodger Stadium in nearly a decade. With their backs against the wall, down 0-2, the Dodgers need a win over the St. Louis Cardinals in Saturday's Game 3 of the best-of-five National League Divisional Series.
"This is probably the most special playoff game of my life," said Lima, who pitched for Houston in the 1997 and 1999 playoffs. "I went to the Independent League, got picked up in June [last year], pitched well in Kansas City, came to [Dodgers] Spring Training as a minor league invitee, made the ballclub out of the bullpen and look what happened.
"Now, the playoffs. I'm pitching on Saturday. It's awesome."
Lima certainly earned his shot at postseason glory after a regular season that saw key arms in the Dodgers' pitching staff physically unable to answer the call (Hideo Nomo, Edwin Jackson, Wilson Alvarez, Brad Penny). Lima bounced back and forth from the bullpen to the rotation. He did whatever he was asked to do -- and he did it well.
Lima, who turned 34 on Sept. 30, went 13-5 with a 4.07 ERA in 36 games, 24 starts. His 13 wins tied for most wins on the team, and he ranked third in the NL with a .722 winning percentage.
The Dodgers were 17-7 in games he started, and Lima went 6-2 in games following a Dodgers loss. With the Dodgers facing elimination and riding a three-game skid, manager Jim Tracy is confident that he has the right pitcher on the mound.
"I think from the standpoint of looking at his track record and the experience that he has, and having gone through this before, having been a 20-game winner in the Major Leagues, he's not going to be overwhelmed by the situation," said Tracy.
"You know something? He's going to put his best stuff out there on the table and do the very best he can with that and see if that's good enough."
If his past performance at Dodger Stadium is any indication (9-1, 3.08 ERA in 2004), Lima's best stuff may be more than enough. He won't be pitching just for his teammates; he'll be pitching for a sellout crowd that has embraced him for the energy he brings to the stadium every night, whether he's on the mound or perched on the steps of the dugout, where he shouts louder than most fans at the Dodger Stadium Field Level.
"I think Jose Lima feeds off of our fans," said Tracy "I really do. You know, our fans love him, and he is extremely appreciative of the way that they have supported him in games that he's pitched here.
"I think that other things that possibly come into play is that in night games at Dodger Stadium, the ballpark plays a little larger than it actually is, which is a benefit to him. He has given up some home runs this year, several of which are solo in variety."
For his part, Lima hopes the fans bring the same energy they have brought at other crucial times during the season.
"It would be great to see the fans into the game, cheering us and supporting us," said Lima.
Jose Lima / P
Weight: 205 lbs
Bats: R / Throws: R
But there is no doubt that the team has a mountain to climb. Even if he can get the club a win on Saturday, the Dodgers will have to pull out two more against a powerhouse Cardinals team that won 105 games in the regular season, and has now won six of the eight contests against Los Angeles.
But a win in Game 3 might do more than just keep this club fighting another day. A win from Lima would be the ultimate rallying cry from the clubs' biggest cheerleader -- the kind of big defensive play that changes the momentum in a game.
For a team that was criticized in years past for having no heart, the Dodgers have been all heart since Lima arrived, with 53 come-from-behind wins this year to prove it.
"He's been a complete breath of fresh air," said Tracy. "His enthusiasm is -- what's the word I'm looking for -- infectious. It's genuine. I think it's something that our club has played on a lot during the course of this season. When you see a guy ... [sitting] up on the top step of the dugout, encouraging his teammates, you know, he's a wonderful teammate.
"Until you really get an opportunity to be involved with him hands-on, you can't really appreciate how special he is. As a matter of fact, if you're over on the other side of the field, there's times he's very aggravating. But you just don't know what all the intentions are. There is really nothing that's obviously malicious in nature or anything like that. He's just a special guy that obviously, at his age, to continue to see the energy level with which he goes about it, I think it's very safe to say that he loves this game. He loves it.
"He doesn't like it, he loves it."
Jared Ravich is an editorial producer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.