Unheralded Herrera allows LA to live another day
LOS ANGELES -- The Dodgers are known for their star power -- Matt Kemp, Clayton Kershaw, Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez, Andre Ethier. But it takes a small village of ballplayers to keep a season alive.
On Monday night at Dodger Stadium, little known but much appreciated Elian Herrera was the man with the walk-off magic. His line drive that Giants second baseman Marco Scutaro couldn't corral delivered Ramirez from third in the ninth inning for a 3-2 victory that gave meaning to game 161 on Tuesday night.
"He's not a quitter," Ramirez said of Herrera, who spent nine years laboring in the Dodgers' system before finally getting the call this season. "He's a good teammate. Everybody loves him. We're happy for him to come through like that."
A Dodger Stadium gathering of 33,624 gave Herrera the kind of roar seemingly reserved for popular Luis Cruz, who has come out of the shadows to deliver one clutch hit after another.
Herrera's game-winning bullet against Santiago Casilla came after singles by Ramirez and Cruz and an intentional walk to A.J. Ellis.
With one out, Herrera -- a .249 hitter who'd replaced Ethier in a double-switch -- figured a hard sinker was coming and managed to find the sweet spot.
"I was looking for a fastball, especially because I knew he didn't want to walk me," Herrera said. "He was trying to strike me out or get a double play, but they know I can run a little bit.
"As I walked up [to hit], I was a little nervous. I said, `OK, this is the moment, the team is fighting for the playoffs. I've got to do something -- make contact. I was able to hit it hard in a good place."
The familiar mob scene in the infield followed in a heartbeat, the Dodgers racing to get to the 27-year-old athlete from San Pedro de Macoris.
"Dee Gordon broke my T-shirt, everything," Herrera said, beaming. "It was pretty exciting."
Like Ramirez, Herrera hails from the Dominican Republic, where baseball is more than a game. It's a way of life.
"It's the only thing I want to do," Herrera said, explaining how he was able to keep the flame alive all those seasons riding buses for low wages. "In the Dominican, this is the only way we can take care of our family. I love the game.
"It is a long time, but a lot of guys play for a long time to come and make it. It's a dream come true. I remember when I came up here, the team was really playing good. That is how the team is playing now -- really good."
Herrera has had three stints with the Dodgers as an all-purpose role player, the first coming in mid-May. They reeled off six consecutive wins when he showed up, moving to 30-13 and a seven-game lead in the National League West.
But the Giants began stalking the men in blue, and a three-game sweep at Dodger Stadium Aug. 20-22 lifted San Francisco into the division lead for keeps.
With six straight happy endings, the Dodgers have rallied late, forcing the Cardinals to earn the second NL Wild Card.
St. Louis responded against Cincinnati on Monday, leaving the Dodgers in the position of knowing they had to win to keep a flicker of a hope. The Cards can extinguish that small flame on Tuesday night.
From manager Don Mattingly on down through the roster to the Herreras, it's a time to play from the heart and hope the baseball gods -- and the Reds, in this case -- smile and reward them.
"We had to do our job," Mattingly said. "Keep forcing the action. It'd be nice to know our game means something tomorrow."
This one was in the early going when the Cardinals finished off a 4-2 decision over the Reds on Monday night.
Ethier's 20th home run of the season against Giants ace Matt Cain, a man he has hammered to the tune of .464 (26-for-56) in his career, gave Aaron Harang a 2-1 advantage in the fourth inning. Buster Posey, enhancing his NL MVP campaign, doubled home a run in the first and leads the NL with a .336 average.
After the Giants drew even in the eighth on Angel Pagan's double and Scutaro's single, the Dodgers' bullpen held firm. Brandon League continued his brilliant work with a scoreless ninth -- his 19th clean appearance in his past 20 -- and Ramirez got it going against Casilla with his single through the middle.
"It wasn't time to do too much," said Ramirez, who has been known to swing from the heels, with 24 homers to show for it. "Stay through the middle. I was nice and short, nice and easy."
The same attitude paid off for Cruz when he answered the familiar chant with a liner to left that left Ramirez at third after a bunt by Shane Victorino. Then came the walk to Ellis and Herrera's first at-bat of the night.
"It feels good to see somebody like him do good, especially after waiting nine years," Cruz said of Herrera's walk-off single. "I waited a long time, too. We were together in Triple-A to start the year, and here we are, trying to help this team get in the playoffs."
Mattingly was thinking about having to get two innings out of League when he double-switched Ethier out of the lineup and inserted Herrera in left.
"Elian's been great for us," Mattingly said. "He was really valuable when he came up and got some big hits, playing all over the place. He's a lot like Cruzer. Those two guys gave us big hits tonight."
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.