As much as the Dodgers tried to talk down the significance of a June series, the way in which they won three of four games from the Eastern Division-leading Pittsburgh Pirates--capped by Sunday's 2-0 victory--spoke volumes.
Here is what Sunday's game said: By winning the past three games and completing a 14-5 month against the East, the Dodgers own the best record in baseball (42-26); if they don't have the best pitching staff in baseball, their staff is doing the best pitching; and the team that couldn't make the routine plays for the first month is now catching everything that comes its way.
Tim Belcher, continuing his recent surge, became the 22nd consecutive Dodger starter to work at least six innings Sunday, improving to 7-4 with eight-plus shutout innings.
When Belcher left in the ninth to a standing ovation from the crowd of 46,354, Tim Crews came in to leave runners on second and third for his fifth save.
The Dodgers again did the little things--bunting for hits, getting a two-out run-scoring single from Belcher--and got some good bounces as well, particularly in the sixth inning when Andy Van Slyke singled and Barry Bonds doubled. Bonds' hit bounced over the center-field wall for a ground-rule double and Van Slyke had to stop at third base, where Belcher left him by getting the third out.
"Those bounces, sometimes they go your way, sometimes they don't," Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda said with a smile.
The Dodgers scored in the first inning when singles by Brett Butler and Juan Samuel put runners at first and third. With Butler leading well off third, pitcher Zane Smith fielded Stan Javier's grounder, looked at Butler, hesitated, then threw to second barely in time to force out Samuel and well too late for a double play while Butler crossed the plate.
The Dodgers scored again against Smith (7-6) in the fourth inning on three consecutive singles, the last by Belcher scoring Lenny Harris on a close play at the plate. Smith was taken out for a pinch-hitter after the inning.
Pirate Manager Jim Leyland had good reason to go to the bench quickly. Belcher had a no-hitter through four innings and wasn't seriously tested until Bonds' double in the sixth.
Harris made a fine play with a man on third base in the seventh inning to help end another threat. It was one of two outstanding plays for Harris Sunday and Eddie Murray made several at first.
"They're real stingy with runs," Leyland said. "The one thing they weren't supposed to do was catch the ball. They caught everything we hit."
Belcher is one of the major beneficiaries of the improved defense. He was victimized for 13 unearned runs on 13 errors earlier this season.
"Frankly, we had trouble catching the ball the first month," he said. "The reason we're on a good streak now and six games in front is obviously the pitching, but a related cause for the effect is the defense. You can throw five Roger Clemens out there and it won't matter if you can't catch."
Belcher, who improved his record against Pittsburgh to 7-1, is 4-0 in his last eight starts and has an earned-run average of 2.40, despite struggling through most of May. He struck out five and gave up five hits.
"It's the first chance I've had to catch him," catcher Gary Carter said. "He had a good fastball, a good split-finger. He was around the plate the whole day. He was able to come through and make the good pitch with men on base. I thought we worked well together."
While this series was seen by some as a preview of the playoffs, Butler and Carter said that view was more in the eyes of fans and media than the players.
"We just go out there each day with a cautious confidence, not arrogance, and try to win the game," Butler said. But he added, "I've never been on a team with this kind of pitching staff."
Carter was reminded of the 1986 World Series champion New York Met team on which he played.
"This team is reminiscent of the '86 Mets, where you go on the field feeling like you're going to win," he said. "This kind of staff gives any team confidence."
1991 average: 41,462