Operas Have Been Written About Less

With the Yankees coasting towards their ninth straight division title, my attention has been riveted on the NL West the past several days, where the Dodgers and Padres have been fighting tooth and nail for control of the division and its likely consolation prize, the NL Wild Card. Coming into the series, the Dodgers held a bare half-game lead, and thanks to the most miraculous comeback I’ve ever seen this side of Game Seven of the 2003 ALCS, they still hold it four days later. In the interim they managed to rip my guts out about 17 times, but really, who’s complaining? This series alone justified my Extra Innings cable TV package. Operas have been written about less. We’re talking about a fairytale bedtime story as read by Vin Scully himself. But let’s back up a bit…

• • •

The Padres have owned the Dodgers all season; coming into the series, they’d won 11 out of their 14 head-to-head battles, including all five games at Dodger Stadium. The Dodgers would have to make some headway against that in order to survive the weekend still in the playoff picture.

Friday night kicked off the series with a marquee matchup featuring two soft-tossing fortysomething pitchers near the end of the line, Greg Maddux and David Wells. Interestingly enough, the two 20-year vets had never faced each other before. I’d attended Maddux’s previous two starts, one at Miller Park, the other at Shea, and watched opposing hitters bleed him to death. Since coming to the Dodgers, Maddux has struggled on the road, yielding a 4.87 ERA in five starts, including his six-inning no-hit bid in his Big Blue debut. In Chavez Ravine, he’s been something else, yielding just a 1.71 ERA coming in.

The 43-year-old Wells served three different DL stints this year, finally proving himself healthy enough just as the Red Sox season sank to the bottom of Boston Harbor. Theo Epstein traded him back to the Padres — for whom he pitched in 2004 — on August 31, a move that signaled a white flag for the Red Sox. Big as an RV now, he nonetheless still has his impeccable control and a penchant for rising to the occasion. Here in New York, we still miss the Boomer.

The matchup lived up to its billing, with the two wily veterans matching zeroes for the first three and a half innings. In the fourth, having just benefited from a double play, Wells issued a two-out walk to Jeff Kent — the only free pass he issued all night — before J.D. Drew drove him home with a double. Julio Lugo followed with a single to run the score to 2-0. Hampered by a sore ankle, Wells yielded to a pinch-hitter in the sixth still trailing. Meanwhile, Maddux was doing no less than making his second no-hit bid in nine Dodger starts. He didn’t allow a hit until Brian Giles singled with one out in the seventh, and he departed at inning’s end, having thrown just 68 pitches.

The Dodgers added another run in the seventh when Marlon Anderson reached second on a bunt and a throwing error by first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. Anderson then stole third on Mike Piazza, who’d only thrown out about 12 percent of opposing baserunners, scoring on a sacrifice fly by Olmedo Saenz.

The Padres mounted a threat in the eighth when Jonathan Broxton issued a leadoff walk to Gonzalez, who came around to score on a single and a throwing error by Lugo on a botched double play. Takashi Saito closed the deal in the ninth by striking out two hitters and then inducing Giles to ground out, and like that, the Dodgers had given themselves a nice cushion in the division race.

That cushion didn’t take long to be erased. The next night, in a game I mercifully missed, rookie Chad Billingsley took the hill for the first time since missing three weeks due to a strained oblique muscle. He lasted just an inning, yielding three runs, two of them on a Gonzalez double. The Dodgers quickly got one run back when Rafael Furcal poked a leadoff homer, but in the third inning, the Padres rolled a snowman, as the golfers say: eight runs on homers by Mike Cameron, Todd Walker, and Gonzalez off of Eric Stults and Tim Hamulack. The Dodgers tacked on a run late, but they were never in this 11-2 rout.

Sunday’s matchup, another battle for first place, was much closer to Friday in tone. Chris Young and Derek Lowe matched zeroes, with Young yielding just one hit through six innings. By the time he departed, the Padres had given him a 1-0 lead on Russell Branyan’s two-out home run in the top of the sixth. An inning later, the Dodgers got even on a Russell Martin solo shot off of Cla Meredith, ending the rookie reliever’s amazing run of 34 scoreless innings dating back to July 17. It was the first homer Meredith allowed all year.

The nailbiter remained deadlocked into the ninth. Broxton got into trouble by surrendering a one-out single to Josh Bard (replaced by pinch-runner Khalil Greene) and then a walk to Geoff Blum. Pinch-hitter Termel Sledge laced a single to right that brought home Greene to put the Pads on top. A wild pitch sent the runners to second and third, so Dave Roberts was intentionally walked to face Giles with one out (gulp). Broxton won the battle, striking out Giles looking on the seventh pitch of the at-bat, and he escaped the inning when Josh Barfield fouled out.

The Dodgers mounted a meager threat against Trevor Hoffman when Furcal, who never took the bat off his shoulder, drew a two-out walk. But Kenny Lofton only managed a flyball to centerfield, and like that, the Dodgers surrendered first place for the first time since August 9.

• • •

Which brings us to Monday night’s finale. This one, which I TiVOed to save until I finished the Hit List, was almost over before it began because Bad Penny turned up. Er, Brad Penny. Penny came in as the league leader with 16 wins, but after earning an All-Star Game start with a 10-2, 2.91 ERA record, he’s been brutal in the second half, posting a 5.91 ERA. He seems to run deep into nearly every count, and his labor-intensive style isn’t just hell to watch, it puts a big burden on the bullpen.

Here, Penny got two quick outs in the first, the second by striking out Giles. But Gonzalez poked a single up the middle, Piazza doubled him home, Branyan walked, Cameron tripled to make it 3-0 — I waited all day for this? — and Blum brought him home with a single. 4-0, grrrr. In an instant message, I suggested feeding Penny to rabid wolves. In my head, I devised tortures so cruel, the Geneva Convention would have blushed.

But the Dodgers quickly began chipping away against Jake Peavy. Peavy, this man’s preseason pick for the NL Cy Young, has had a trying year due to a strained latissimus dorsi muscle and other woes; he came in just 9-14 with a 4.25 ERA, though in his previous three starts he’d allowed just four runs in 21.2 innings.

Furcal started the party with a bunt and moved to second on a Lofton single. Nomar Garciaparra, back in the lineup after missing two starts due to a strained quad sustained late in Friday night’s game, grounded into a double play, but Jeff Kent drilled a double to deep centerfield to plate the run. Alas, J.D. Drew struck out looking to end the inning.

The Dodgers got another run back in the second when Anderson, whom L.A. acquired from Washington at the August 31 deadline, poked a solo homer to rightfield, his third in just 25 at-bats as a Dodger. The third brought even more fun when Furcal led off with a homer, and back-to-back two-out doubles by Kent and Drew tied the score. A whole new ballgame, baby.

Penny and Peavy artlessly trudged onward, neither recording a single 1-2-3 inning all night. The Padres left the bases loaded in the fifth, and the Dodgers, as if in sympathy, stranded two themselves. Brett Tomko, who’s been awful enough lately to push his ERA above 5.00, took the baton from Penny and promptly surrendered a leadoff double to Blum. He got as far as third base before Tomko whiffed Roberts to close the door.

Alan Embree relieved Peavy to start the bottom of the sixth and got into trouble himself, yielding a single to Anderson — his third hit of the night — and then walking Wilson Betemit. Grady Little called pinch-hitter Olmedo Saenz, slated to bat for Tomko, back to the dugout in favor of Oscar Robles, who tried to lay down a sac bunt. Embree picked it up and threw to third for the force, but the throw pulled Branyan off the bag to leave all hands safe with nobody out. Ohboyohboyohboy!

But Meredith came on in relief of Embree and quickly restored order. Furcal grounded into a forceout at home plate, and Lofton hit a feeble first-pitch comeback that started a 1-2-3 double play. I nearly swept my laptop into the floor in anger, then thought better of it. The Dodgers used the double-play escape hatch themselves in the bottom of the inning, when Joe Beimel induced Bard to ground into a 5-4-3 DP to escape a two-on, one-out jam.

Alas, the dam broke in the eighth, when Broxton came on in relief. The burly, heat-throwing rookie had surrendered the winning run the day before, and while he looked poised, the results weren’t there. A one-out walk to Blum was followed by an RBI double by Barfield, who took third when the throw got by the catcher. Todd Walker brought him home, and nearly scored himself via a steal and a wild pitch. I held my breath as Giles flied out to right to end the ordeal.

Scott Linebrink, the Pads’ fine setup man, instantly made things interesting when Anderson drove a ball into the rightfield corner. He ran through the third-base coach’s stop sign and chugged into third with a leadoff triple, his fourth hit of the game. Wilson Betemit promptly plated the run with a single up the middle, then gave way to Julio Lugo. The Dodger Stadium crowd gasped as Furcal lofted a flyball to leftfield, but it settled into Roberts’ glove for an easy out. Scully’s call was classic: “The crowd looking at that flyball with their hearts, and not with their eyes.”

With two outs, Lugo took third when Lofton slapped a two-out hit to right. Giles nonchalanted back into the infield, and Lofton, who can still motor at 39 (he’s got 10 triples and 27 steals this year), raced to second. Alas, Nomar struck out swinging to keep the score 6-5.

The Padres looked like they’d seal the deal in the ninth. Gonzalez greeted Saito with a single — the fourth time he’d reached base on the night, and the ninth time of the series — and Manny Alexander — Manny Alexander? — beamed in from the twilight zone to lay down a sac bunt. Bard drove a ball to deep centerfield that would have gone out had it not been for an amazing effort by Lofton, who knocked the ball down and kept Gonzalez from scoring. “That might have saved the season,” I thought to myself, admiring the play. Cameron was intentionally walked to load the bases, and then all hell broke loose. A wild pitch scored Gonzalez and moved the runners up, a sac fly scored Bard, and then a Barfield single scored Cameron to run the score to 9-5. Jack Cust, another long-lost soul from an alternate dimension, grounded out to close the inning but the damage was done. Fair game to the Padres, it seemed.

The big rally had taken the Pads out of a save situation, so instead of calling on Hoffman, Bruce Bochy turned on the autopilot — as Joe Sheehan writes today, this was a chance for the Padres to step on the Dodgers’ neck — and summoned Jon Adkins. Adkins threw ball one to Kent, who’d already had a great night with two doubles and a single. Kent promptly socked his next pitch over the centerfield wall, and I reminded myself about the fantastic season he had last year for the Dodgers, when all else crumbled around him. I’m not fond of the man, but I respect the hell out of his game, and if nothing else, seeing him round the bases in what still looked like a lost cause at least sent a message that the team would go down swinging.

Four pitches later, J.D. Drew, another gamer, punished another Adkins offering, sending it into the right-centerfield bleachers to trim the lead to 9-7. “Okay, okay!” I muttered to myself as Bochy belatedly summoned Hoffman, four shy of becoming the all-time saves leader and still at the top of his game.

Martin greeted Hoffman with a home run to left-center on his first pitch, the Dodgers’ third home run in a row. For a moment I wondered if I’d been looking at a replay — it was well after 1:30 AM, after all — or backed the TiVO up, but the ball landed in a different spot than either of the previous two. “Holy shit. Tying run at the plate, baby!” I said to myself, frantically flapping the blanket that I’d been curled up underneath. “The Dodgers are still a buck short,” reminded Scully as the cameras cut to Martin’s dad dishing out high- and low-fives to bystanders. In stepped Anderson and I thought, “This is asking too much.” At best I hoped he could double to complete the cycle, but really, anything this side of an out would have been fine.

And for some reason, at that moment, I was reminded of Dick Nen. Any Dodger fan who knows his history knows the significance of that name. In his fifth inning “This Day in Baseball” feature — generally the only time Scully appears on screen these days — the Dodger announcer reminded the audience that 43 years ago today, Nen, in just his second major-league at-bat, slammed a ninth-inning, game-tying home run to cap a comeback against the St. Louis Cardinals. The Dodgers had trailed 5-1, but they went on to win in 13 innings. It was the only hit Nen ever got for the Dodgers, but it helped them stave off the Cards (whom they led by three games at the time) to win the pennant. The situations weren’t parallel, but the message was clear: pennant races make for strange bedfellows and unlikely heroes.

On Hoffman’s very next pitch, Anderson hit a towering drive over the right-center wall as the Dodger Stadium crowd erupted. “Believe it or not!” exclaimed Scully, and the late Jack Buck’s immortal words to describe Kirk Gibson’s World Series homer came to the tip of my tongue: “I don’t believe what I just saw!” What came out instead was a string of obscenities, gleefully muttered through the world’s biggest shit-eating grin as I watched bedlam in Chavez Ravine. The camera cut to fans who’d left the game re-entering just to see what the hell had happened.

Four homers in a row — that’s something I’ve never seen, and unless you’re pushing 50, neither have you. The feat was done three times in the early 1960s, most recently by the Twins in 1964. To summon such magic in the service of late-inning rally in the midst of a pennant race? By a team that entered the night last in the NL in dingers? Dude, that’s why I watch baseball. Unbelievable.

“The art of fiction is dead,” wrote Red Smith on the occasion of a much more somber moment in Dodger history. “Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.”

And there were still no outs. Lugo slapped Hoffman’s next offering into the outfield, but Cameron got under it for the first out. Pinch-hitter Andre Ethier popped out to shallow center, then Furcal, who’s morphed into Albert Pujols this month (.388/.411/.687, with five homers in his last 10 games) tomahawked a shot that took Giles to the warning track as 55,000 fans held their collective breath. Close but no cigar.

That took the game to the 10th inning, where Aaron Sele came on in relief. Sele had crawled off the scrap heap and into the Dodger rotation earlier this year, going 3-0 with a 2.20 ERA in his first five starts. He was at 6-2 with a 2.91 ERA in mid-July when things began to unravel, and he was sent to the pen in early August when the Dodgers feared he was gassed. Since then he’s appeared only sporadically — a spot start here, a long-relief appearance there, an extra-inning stretch for good measure — with rocky results that had taken his ERA to 4.35. Not surprisingly, he quickly got into trouble, when Giles hit a one-out double and Gonzalez drew an intentional walk. One looooong flyout later (Lofton at the wall to haul in pinch-hitter Paul McAnulty’s drive), Bard singled in Giles, and a Cameron walk prolonged the agony. But Sele retired Blum to end the inning, preserving the one-run deficit.

As the clock approached 2 AM Eastern, on came Rudy Seanez, last seen drawing his walking papers from the Red Sox amid the Beantown Beatdown. Scully marveled at Seanez’s lengthy, injury-riddled career, which included a stint with the Dodgers back in 1994-95 and is now on its fourth run with the Padres; in all he’s pitched for eight big-league teams, and it took him until 2005, his Age 36 year, to record even one 50-inning season.

Seanez walked Lofton to lead off the inning. “Ball four! And the Dodgers have a rabbit as the tying run,” exclaimed Scully. Up came Garciaparra, and though his injury isn’t as severe as Gibson’s, one could be forgiven for thinking of that fairytale moment on such a weird and wonderful night. Manager Grady Little — oh jeez, what a buzzkill to think of him at this moment — had sounded like he was risking Nomar’s entire season the day before when he remarked:

“Unlike the knee injury, where he could play when the pain was tolerable, this thing, if you push it, could pop altogether and he’d be out for 10 days or two weeks, and we can’t afford that right now.. I think he’ll play tomorrow, and he could pinch-hit today.”

Indeed, Garciaparra struck out in the pinch in the ninth inning of Sunday’s game. Little was only slightly more sanguine before Monday’s contest:

“We’ll try him today… We hope he gets through it. It’s a little gamble. It could blow up if he gets overextended, but we’ll take a chance with it tonight. When a player gets under the gun with a chance to beat out an infield hit, it’s hard for them to back off… We’re trying to win the game… We need him in there to win the game. He wanted to play yesterday. He feels he can play effectively and we feel he can play effectively and that’s why he’s going to play.”

Wow. Nonetheless, there was Nomar, hitting just .224/.255/.469 in September, coming to the plate. Seanez fell behind 3-1, and then Garciaparra just crushed his next pitch.

Two-run homer.


The second lead change in the division in as many days.

Are you fucking kidding me?

Leftfielder Roberts had already turned back to face the plate as the ball went over the wall as pandemonium broke out both in Dodger Stadium and in my own private viewing box; somehow I managed to keep from waking my wife. The Dodgers dogpiled at home plate as Scully, with admirable restraint, let the celebratory scene do the talking.

Two minutes later, the master of the mic remarked enthusiastically, “I forgot to tell you: the Dodgers are in first place!” Another minute of crowd shots and stadium noise passed, un-Scullyed, before he finally signed off: “I think we’ve said enough from up here. Once again, the final score in 10 innings — believe it or not — Dodgers 11, Padres 10.”

Best. Game. Ever.

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