10/05/08 5:15 AM ET
A sweep as simple as 1, 2, 3
Pitching, scoring in key spots lead LA past Cubs
By Matthew Leach / MLB.com
Their starting pitchers took control of each game. Their bullpen had only one hiccup -- but never when a game was in doubt. They took good at-bats, took their walks, hit for power and drove in runners when they had chances. They even played exemplary defense, getting to just about every ball while committing exactly one error.
Surely, at least a few Dodgers fans are wondering right now where this team was for six months -- the fine citizens of greater Los Angeles might have saved a lot of money on antacid if its ballclub had played so well all year long.
"It's very satisfying. Very satisfying," said manager Joe Torre. "We had a lot of people doubting us all year. And we didn't have ... we weren't resentful about it. It was just the fact we haven't really played well enough to get anybody's attention."
At the heart of the sweep, and at the heart of the Dodgers all year long, was starting pitching. This team got quality work from its starters from April to September, and it's getting it in October. Chad Billingsley is one of the emerging stars of 2008, and he could be one of the breakout stars of the playoffs. Derek Lowe is a known commodity. Hiroki Kuroda was much better than his 9-10 record.
"I got really helpful advice from [Lowe and Billingsley] -- not just from these two games but throughout the season," said Kuroda. "They've been pitching really well, and I learned a lot from them. And my objective for the season was to follow their lead. They were pitching really well, and I wanted to pitch as well as they did."
Los Angeles will need to go four deep in the NL Championship Series, and that will be a different challenge. Rookie starter Clayton Kershaw would be the No. 4 starter, and while Kershaw has been brilliant at times, he's not a finished product just yet. Still, if there's one thing the Dodgers can expect to carry over into the NLCS, it's quality starting pitching.
|You would think it would be uncommon for a lower-seeded team to sweep its opponent, but since division play began in 1969, there have been 11 such instances. But the 13-win difference between the Dodgers and Cubs is the largest by any underdog that swept its opponent.|
|1975||Red Sox||Athletics||3||ALCS, 3-0|
|2000||Mariners||White Sox||4||ALDS, 3-0|
|2004||Red Sox||Cardinals||7||WS, 4-0|
It was the offense, then, that may have grabbed some people's attention unexpectedly. The Dodgers scored 20 runs in three games, and they did it in the fashion of Torre's old Yankees teams: take and rake. They drew 14 walks and hit four home runs.
That wasn't there all year, but Torre always wanted it to be there. And the additions of Manny Ramirez in July and Rafael Furcal (returning from a back injury) at the end of September make it much more feasible.
Ramirez made the Dodgers' offense much more dangerous. Furcal makes it whole. Additionally, Casey Blake's presence down in the No. 8 spot means that there's never an inning where a pitcher faces the Dodgers without seeing a home run threat.
It's not a great offense. But as currently constructed, it's a very good one.
Furcal and Russell Martin set the table, and they did so superbly in the NLDS. Furcal reached base at least twice in each game, scoring four runs, while Martin had four hits, a walk and scored twice.
Ramirez, with two homers in the series, starts the damage section of the order, with Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp and James Loney also there to drive in runs. One thing that must encourage the Dodgers going into the LCS is that they scored 20 runs while Kemp (2-for-13) and Ethier (1-for-10) scuffled. Even Loney, despite six RBIs, went only 2-for-14. The middle of the order can -- and should -- get better.
Then there's the bullpen, which is a fine unit for the most part, but it is still somewhat in flux. The Dodgers only needed one save, and Jonathan Broxton nailed it down on Saturday. But there remains some figuring out to do, as it appears that Torre only really trusts Broxton and Cory Wade at this point. If there is a game where L.A. needs to get 11 or 12 outs with a lead, it could get interesting.
But that's mostly nitpicking. At the moment, the Dodgers look like the most complete team in the NL. They hit, they pitched and they fielded, and they steamrolled the Cubs. Chicago entered the playoffs as the NL favorite, and the Dodgers stuffed them. Next, they'll try to do the same thing to the Phillies or Brewers, and it's not hard to see them doing it.
"They tacked on runs when they were ahead, they pitched well out of the bullpen, they pitched well out of the rotation," said Cubs starter Ryan Dempster.
That about sums it up.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.