Dodgers Uncork NL West Title

Times Staff Writer

The coronation of the Dodgers as National League West champions, expected days ago, finally is official. No more pondering the mathematical possibilities, slim as they were. No more deferring to superstition for Manager Tom Lasorda, who would not discuss the impending playoff series until the race really was over.

With a 3-2 victory over the San Diego Padres Monday night before 18,552 fans at Jack Murphy Stadium, the Dodgers proved many skeptics wrong and became the first National League team in the 1980s to win four divisional titles.

It was not an easy climb from being among the West's downtrodden to its elite for the Dodgers, so it was fitting that the Dodgers' title-clinching victory was not easy.

They needed Mickey Hatcher's run-scoring single in the eighth inning to break a 2-2 tie, three scoreless innings from Alejandro Pena and Jay Howell's 21st save to hold off the Padres for the win.

Amid the chaos that was the Dodger clubhouse--the beer and champagne flowed at high tide for more than 30 minutes afterward--Lasorda moved from player to player, administering spleen-jarring hugs.

"They really believed," Lasorda bellowed. "I really believed, right from when we left spring training. This team has been in first place almost the whole way (since May 26) because they believed they could do it.

"This one is special to me because nobody thought we would win it. I couldn't be happier for the players. I'd like to thank them. I'd like to thank Fred (Claire, Dodger executive vice president) for getting the players. And Peter (O'Malley, the owner) for allowing him to get them."

It took 92 victories for the Dodgers to finally eliminate the second-place Cincinnati Reds and expunge the memory of two consecutive losing seasons. Among the rewards reaped is a showdown in the National League Championship Series against the New York Mets, who have beaten the Dodgers in 10 of 11 meetings this season.

"It's the first step for us," said a happy yet subdued Kirk Gibson. "It's been a long season to get this far. But we want to keep it going. We want to win the World Series."

While many of his teammates partied the minutes away in the clubhouse, Gibson later stood on the third-base line of the deserted field, clutching a beer can and staring (not howling) at the moon. After a few minutes, he took a swig of beer and rejoined the celebration.

Later, Gibson returned to the field with his young son, Kirk Jr., who ran the bases.

For most of the players, though, Monday was not a night to think too far ahead. The Dodgers, picked to finish no better than third in the West by most prognosticators, were much too busy celebrating the club's first division title since 1985 and Lasorda's sixth in 12 seasons. As a group, they barked liked dogs and repeated their season-long post-victory chant, too bawdy to be printed here.

After Howell forced Marvell Wynne to pop up to second baseman Steve Sax for the game's final out, Dodger players raced onto the field and smothered Howell. With cheers outnumbering boos among the crowd, players and coaches ran off the field and into the clubhouse with fists raised in exultation.

Howell, the club's best reliever and a precious commodity for the playoffs, called getting the final out for the divisional title his best moment in baseball. He also wants to pitch in the playoffs, so he said his first thought was to protect himself from the onslaught of players.

"After the last out, I just wanted to stay away from Saxy, because I knew he'd try to kill me," Howell said. "As it was, Dempsey was pulling me down from behind.

"All week, I was kind of hoping I'd be in that spot. I lost here earlier in the year when the roof fell in. I didn't want that to happen again. I made sure of it."

Considering that the Dodgers had clinched a tie with 7 games remaining, it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that they would eventually secure the title. There was no shortage of drama, however, when they finally won it.

A Dodger victory was necessary Monday night because Cincinnati, winner of 8 straight games, simply refused to lose. Knowing that the Reds were winning again, the Dodgers staged an eighth-inning rally that was climaxed by Hatcher's single.

The 2-2 tie was broken when the Dodgers manufactured an unearned run with a minimum of offense against Dennis Rasmussen, who beat the Dodgers three times this season after coming to the Padres from the Reds.

Alfredo Griffin opened the inning by hitting a ball to shortstop Dickie Thon in the hole between third base and shortstop. Thon had plenty of time to throw out Griffin, but his throw sailed to the right of first baseman Keith Moreland and wound up near the photo well in foul territory.

Griffin went to second on the error and advanced to third on Sax's sacrifice bunt. Up came Hatcher, and in came the Padre infield to the grass.

Hatcher lined Rasmussen's second pitch beyond Thon's reach and into left field, scoring Griffin for a 3-2 lead and sending Dodger players spilling out to the fringe of the dugout.

After Pena worked a scoreless eighth, Howell entered to try to close out the game and pop the corks on a Dodger celebration. With stadium security officers lining the field, Howell struck out pinch-hitter Tim Flannery, got Thon to ground out to third and got Wynne to pop up to Sax in shallow right field to end the game and start the celebrating.

The night did not begin on a promising note for the Dodgers, who gambled and started Fernando Valenzuela, who hadn't started since July 30 because of a stretched anterior capsule in his left shoulder.

No one could really predict how well Valenzuela would pitch. After all, he had been out for 57 days. But after giving up a first-inning, two-run home run to Randy Ready on a screwball gone screwy, Valenzuela pitched 2 scoreless innings and hit his 60-pitch count on the numbers after 3 innings.

Then, solo home runs by John Shelby in the fourth inning and Tracy Woodson in the fifth tied it, 2-2.

"Everything worked fine," Valenzuela said. "Everything except for that one pitch to Ready, and he hit it out. I tried to use all my pitches, and I was encouraged. Most important, I feel fine. We'll see how I feel tomorrow. I don't know whether I pitch again. We're celebrating now."

Claire also was too caught up in the moment to address Valenzuela's immediate future. It is possible, if Valenzuela's left shoulder feels well in the next two days, that he could pitch again over the weekend to determine whether he will be included on the playoff roster.

"Fernando pitched very well tonight," Claire said. "He's worked very hard just to get to this point. But the big part for him is to be a part of this. We wanted Fernando to be a part."

No Dodger player--or anyone brave enough to intrude on the celebration--was spared. Even the stoic John Tudor, who retreated to the trainer's room, was found and properly doused.

All told, Dodger players reportedly went through 15 cases of beer and 5 cases of champagne, some of which was ingested.

They have, as Gibson pointed out, achieved only their first objective. The playoffs and a possible World Series appearance await.

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