It Wasn't All Part of the Dodger Plan, but It Worked

Times Staff Writer

In the optimistic days of spring, Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda would recline in a golf cart during workouts and list about as many reasons for likely Dodger success in 1988 as he has notches in his considerable belt.

Lasorda repeated them with such fervor and conviction that it almost seemed as if he was trying to convince himself. His theories:

--Fernando Valenzuela would return to previous pitching form after an uncharacteristically poor 1987 season.

--The formation of the Lasorda-dubbed awesome fivesome would awaken a slumbering offense. Lasorda said this quintet, consisting of Pedro Guerrero, Kirk Gibson, Mike Marshall, Mike Davis and John Shelby, would restore power to the Dodgers, since each had 20 home-run capability.

--The addition of Jesse Orosco would provide the proven left-handed short reliever the Dodgers had lacked since Steve Howe's departure.

--The acquisition of Alfredo Griffin, a shortstop, who rarely missed a game, even when he had nagging injuries, would significantly reduce the Dodgers' error total. They had led the National League in that category the previous two seasons.

Yet, Lasorda, publicly, at least, ignored some imposing question marks as the Dodgers tried to rebound from consecutive 73-89 seasons:

--Would this influx of seven players from other teams be the right mixture of talent?

--Would Jay Howell, the newly obtained right-handed short reliever, recover from elbow surgery and contribute?

--Could the Dodgers' solid starting pitching absorb the loss of Bob Welch in the winter trade for Orosco, Griffin and Howell?

Turns out, none of those theories about which Lasorda rhapsodized were realized. But, as catcher Mike Scioscia noted recently, "We won because all our question marks are now exclamation points."

And so, here are the Dodgers, Western division champions and a day away from meeting the New York Mets in a best-of-seven series for the National League pennant. Even Lasorda, the true believer, shakes his head when reviewing the season.

"It's like they always say," Lasorda said. "If you would've told me before the season that none of those things would happen but we'd still win, I'd say you're crazy.

"People ask me what the most important thing was for why we won. I can't answer them. I've won six division (titles), and this one was satisfying because the whole team picked each other up and contributed when we needed it."

And, did the Dodgers ever need it.

Valenzuela struggled even more than he had in 1987 and eventually was put on the disabled list with an injured left shoulder.

The awesome fivesome was reduced to a twosome when Guerrero was injured and later traded, Davis slumped and was permanently benched and Shelby suffered through a prolonged power shortage.

Orosco pitched well, at times, but was not the stopper Lasorda thought he would be.

And Griffin, the iron man, broke his hand in May, and the defense still ranked near the bottom in the league.

But, the Dodgers won 94 games and the title because:

Howell came back from surgery and recorded 21 saves, most by a Dodger reliever in 10 seasons, and a 3-season rehabilitation enabled Alejandro Pena to become a capable set-up man for Howell.

--Gibson and Marshall, two-fifths of the awesome fivesome, produced to expectations. Gibson had 25 home runs, 76 RBIs and 31 stolen bases, and Marshall had 20 home runs and 82 RBIs. --The newly acquired Dodger players, after one or two rocky moments, showed they could not only coexist but prosper in the same clubhouse with the veterans.

--The starting pitching staff, without Welch and Valenzuela, carried on as usual, with Orel Hershiser soaring to stardom, Tim Leary resurrecting his career, rookie Tim Belcher beginning a promising one and John Tudor bringing his successful one to the club from St. Louis in mid-August in the Guerrero trade.

Perhaps Bill Russell, Dodger coach and Lasorda's sidekick, put it best during last week's division-clinching celebration.

"To win a pennant, you have to have a lot of things go right," he said. "We've had everything go right."

It does seem as if everything fell into place quite naturally for the Dodgers, who took over the division lead May 26 and never relinquished it.

They ended the season second in the league in team earned-run average, first in saves, 10th in fielding, sixth in runs scored and, perhaps, first in intangibles.

"We aren't the most talented group in the league," Scioscia said. "We're probably third in our division, as far as talent. But we're the best team."

WELCOME TO L.A.

It was about 2 hours before a mid-August game, and Dodger players were absorbed in the standard pregame rituals--card playing, kibitzing, vegetating.

In the middle of the clubhouse, several players were playing their daily game of Hacky-Sack, deftly keeping the small object airborne with their feet, head or body. In the midst of it all was Gibson, drawing laughs from teammates because he was not quite the smoothest player at this pastime.

"Look at that," Belcher said. "It's amazing how this team has evolved from spring training."

Six months after Gibson had stormed off the field at Vero Beach, Fla., moments before the first spring training game, victim of the infamous eye-black-on-the-hat-brim prank, perpetrated by Orosco, he was laughing along with teammates at his less-than-skillful play.

Players' opinions differ as to how much the Gibson incident contributed to the businesslike attitude and sense of purpose that permeated the clubhouse by the time spring training was over.

This much is certain, though: From that point, new and returning Dodgers worked at creating a peaceful, productive existence.

Said Lasorda: "When we went to spring training, one of my questions was that I didn't know how well the guys from the American League would play, how they would fit in with our veterans, how they would get along with me and fit into our philosophy and the tradition of the Dodgers.

"But the guys who have been here made the new guys feel comfortable, and the new guys tried hard to fit in. We have a great group of guys. Very rarely this year did we have internal problems."

So it was that Guerrero and Gibson avoided a clash of egos, Marshall and Guerrero had nary a squabble, and Orosco was almost immediately pardoned for his prank, which he said he originally meant as a player-bonding type of thing.

"The new guys had to make us feel comfortable, just as much we had to make them feel at home," Scioscia said. "Of course, we got along. But it wasn't like these new guys came in and wrote their own ticket. But it seemed like that transition was made pretty easy, when you think about it."

Even in the spring, Lasorda, Executive Vice President Fred Claire and owner Peter O'Malley were mindful of the supposed difficulty of making a winner out of a team dotted with new players.

"We won the most spring training games ever on purpose," Lasorda said. "Peter, Fred and I talked about that. We played those spring games to win, because we wanted to get that winning attitude present from the start.

"We left spring training believing we could win. And we won, despite the fact that Shelby didn't hit the ball out of the park like the year before, Davis wasn't hitting and wasn't playing and Pete got hurt. We still won, because everybody contributed."

AWESOME FIVESOME

Amid the celebration after the Dodgers' title-clinching victory over the San Diego Padres last week, Howell couldn't help himself. He revived Lasorda's long dormant nickname. "We're the awesome fivesome," the reliever said.

He was referring to the five relief pitchers who, for most of the season, made up the best Dodger bullpen in some time--long relievers Brian Holton and Tim Crews, and short relievers Pena, Orosco and Howell.

Their 49 saves surpassed the previous Dodger high of 46. That may seem a modest figure--Oakland's Dennis Eckersley has 45 alone this season--but it is a major improvement over the previous 4 seasons for the Dodgers' bullpen.

"They've done everything we've asked of them," Lasorda said.

Holton and Crews have been effective middle relievers. Holton had a 7-3 record and 1.70 ERA in 45 appearances. Crews, not included on the playoff roster because management figured that recently acquired left-hander Ricky Horton would be more effective against the Mets' left-handed-laden offense, had a 4-0 record with a 3.14 ERA in 42 appearances.

Orosco, who at one point went nearly 3 weeks without an appearance because Lasorda primarily uses him against left-handed hitters, had 9 saves and a 2.72 ERA in 55 appearances. Pena, 3 seasons removed from major shoulder surgery, had 12 saves and a 1.95 ERA in 60 appearances, including a 22-inning scoreless streak in July.

And Howell, who had bone chips removed from his right elbow over the winter, has been worth the price of Welch. In 50 appearances--he missed 15 days with a cracked rib--Howell has 21 saves, most for a Dodger since Terry Forster had 22 in 1978.

After the All-Star break, Howell had 13 saves in 16 opportunities and has gone his last 18 innings without allowing a run.

Lasorda often has been accused of asking too much from his bullpen. Critics said he continually used the same "hot" reliever until he flamed out, then switching to the next one until he, too, was no longer effective.

"I was told about that," Howell said. "But (Lasorda) has been outstanding in that regard. Most of the time, he's put people in the position where they can succeed.

"He's gotten the most out of the bullpen. You look at the bullpen, and everybody's got a good number of appearances. He's been able to keep the bullpen sharp. And he's not afraid to go to the bullpen. But our starters have been so good lately that they don't need any help."

STARTING ALMOST FROM SCRATCH

Lasorda, during the winter meetings, said that it physically hurt him to trade Welch, a cornerstone of the Dodgers' pitching staff in the 1980s.

That hurt was compounded when Valenzuela's left shoulder finally gave in to 8 seasons' worth of screwballs, and he was put on the disabled list.

But the Dodgers' tradition of dominating starting pitching continued unabated, thanks to Hershiser's rise to stardom, culminated with his record 59 consecutive scoreless innings; Leary's 17 wins after a disastrous 1987 season, and Belcher's emergence as a quality starter, winnig 12 games.

Still, to win the title--and be competitive with the Mets--Clair and Lasorda felt they needed another left-handed starter. So, Claire made his biggest trade, sending Guerrero to the Cardinals for Tudor, the 34-year-old left-hander with postseason experience.

Tudor is only 4-3 in 9 starts as a Dodger, but he has a 2.32 ERA. Despite occasions of soreness in his left elbow, Tudor has consistently pitched at least 6 strong innings before turning games over to the bullpen. His playoff status, however, is undetermined because of a hip injury sustained last Friday night.

More than anything, it is the strong starting pitching that has enabled the Dodgers to win. During Hershiser's 59-inning scoreless streak, for instance, the Dodgers scored just 13 runs for him.

Dodger starters lead the league in complete games with 32.

"We got the 1-0 and 2-1 wins," Lasorda said. "Our offensive attack was not what we wanted it to be. So we needed the pitching. We needed the bullpen. We needed the improved defense Alfredo gave us. And we needed the bench to be better."

THE STUNTMEN

The Hollywood term often seems overused when outsiders talk and write about Los Angeles sports teams. But this self-named group of reserves has capably filled in for the Dodgers' leading men at important times this season.

Exhibit A: On May 21, Griffin was hit on the right hand by one of Dwight Gooden's fastballs. He did not return until July 26. With Dave Anderson at shortstop, the Dodgers went from a half game out of first place at the time of Griffin's injury to 6 games in front when Griffin returned.

"It's been a frustrating season for me, but it made it better when Andy came in and played as well as he did," Griffin said. "That's a big reason why we won."

Said Lasorda: "A lot of credit has to go to a guy like Anderson, because I was worried when Griffin went down. (Anderson) helped us more than you can realize."

Exhibit B: When Guerrero's stiff neck forced him to miss all of June and nearly all of July, Jeff Hamilton played well defensively at third base and hit well enough to supply occasional offensive support.

Then, when Hamilton suffered a rib injury in late July, Tracy Woodson showed the Dodgers' depth by filling in until Hamilton's return Sept. 6. Woodson now platoons with Franklin Stubbs at first base.

"It didn't surprise me, if that's what you're asking," Lasorda said. "Not to demean anybody, but last year we brought up guys who weren't ready to play as bench guys, because the injuries we had made the reserves the starters.

"Now when the season began, I've got proven guys on the bench like (39-year-old catcher Rick) Dempsey, (utility player) Danny Heep, Anderson, Stubbs and (top right-handed pinch-hitter Mickey) Hatcher. When we had injuries last year, Glenn Hoffman played shortstop. Phil Garner played third base. Gil Reyes caught."

The Stuntmen picked their name because they think they are anonymous yet are asked to do the tough jobs. "I think the big key to the season was the reserve players," said Shelby, who missed nearly 3 weeks in late April with a rib injury but returned to register a 24-game hitting streak. "We've picked up each other. Sometimes, when you sign new players for the bench, it doesn't work out. It's a blessing it's worked out for us."

PLEASE DON'T FEED THE MANAGER

Lasorda, too, has thanked the "Great Dodger in the Sky," as well as the Dodger brass in the executive offices, at various times this season.

He gave thanks when O'Malley ended speculation of Lasorda's possible departure before it ever really began--with a 2-season contract extension July 8. He gave thanks when he won his 1,000th game on Aug. 27.

And, one recent night, wearing a T-shirt that pleaded, "Please Don't Feed the Manager," Lasorda gave thanks when the caterer finally arrived with the food.

But Lasorda proved to critics this season that he is more than just a good-will ambassador for baseball.

Without much of an offense, without a single dominating relief pitcher such as Eckersley or Jeff Reardon, and with a defense still ranking near the bottom of the league, Lasorda delivered the Dodgers' fourth division championship in the 1980s. They are the only major league team that has won four division titles in this decade.

Has this season been Lasorda's toughest challenge?

"I don't know about that," Lasorda said. "But when you don't have a lot of power, you can't sit back and wait. You have to manage more and create the opportunities.

"I've said it before. A manager is only as good as the players he has. But the responsibility of the manager is to get the most out of his players."

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