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It’s a Save Place, Not a Safe Place : Dodgers: Their bullpen is called a disgusting, dirty spot, but the relief corps in recent weeks has been smelling like a rose.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Because the Dodger relief corps is suddenly the trendiest part of the team, because the once-criticized relievers are cheered after giving up walks and are interviewed on television even though they haven’t shaved for days, there is something everyone should know.

Their bullpen at Dodger Stadium is adjacent to a sewer.

“It really smells,” Jim Gott said.

“Horrible,” Roger McDowell said.

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“The whole game,” Gott said.

It is so bad, some relievers are embarrassed to show their family and friends where they work.

“It’s great to bring people into the stadium, to show them the pitching mound and home plate and the great view,” Gott said. “But then, they always want to go down to left field, to the bullpen. And you say, ‘Well, are you sure?’

“Then you get in there and there’s old pieces of chew, and sunflower seeds, and old cookies--and this terrible odor. People see it and they don’t want to walk inside it. My wife won’t even go near the place.”

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This is a bullpen loved only by the relievers and roaches.

One sizable critter ran across Gott’s shoes recently. As a veteran, his first instinct was not to squash it.

“My first thought was, ‘This is a toy roach put out here by Roger McDowell,’ ” Gott said. “He denied it, so my second thought was, ‘This was a roach trained by Roger McDowell.’ ”

Is it any wonder why in the past three weeks, even with Jay Howell injured and the clubhouse air thick with championship race pressure, the bullpen has never been better?

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The first-place Dodgers, holding a 1 1/2-game lead over the Atlanta Braves with 11 games remaining, suddenly can’t see enough of this bullpen crew. Here’s why:

--In the Dodgers’ past 18 games, during which they have gone 13-5, the bullpen has been involved in all but two of the victories. The relief pitchers are 5-1 with six saves and a 2.08 earned-run average.

--In their past 50 innings, relievers have given up eight earned runs for a 1.44 ERA.

--Gott has given up two runs in his past 21 innings.

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--McDowell is 5-1 with three saves in his past 14 appearances.

--Steve Wilson, the left-hander acquired from the Chicago Cubs’ triple-A team in Iowa, has not given up an earned run since joining the Dodgers Sept. 6 and has stranded all 14 runners he has inherited.

“It’s like I told the bullpen when I met with them back in New York,” Manager Tom Lasorda said. “They are the ones who gave us that big lead in the race, but they were the ones who were taking away that lead, and so they had to be the ones to give it back to us.

“And that’s what they have done. They have turned it around. We would not be where we are today without them.”

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Lasorda was referring to a meeting he held with the bullpen pitchers at Shea Stadium during a series against the Mets in July.

At the time, the bullpen had given up 14 runs in 19 innings, leading to the Dodgers’ season-worst seven-game losing streak.

What has happened since then? And how has the bullpen been able to do it without Howell, who hasn’t pitched since Sept. 3 because of strained ligaments in his right elbow?

In answer to the first question, Fred Claire, Dodger vice president, acquired McDowell and Wilson in trades that cost the Dodgers Mike Hartley and minor leaguers Braulio Castillo and Jeff Hartsock.

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Claire wanted McDowell because he was a veteran who would remain level-headed in a pennant race. Despite his reputation as a practical joker, that is exactly what McDowell has done.

“People ask if I’m proud of what we’ve done--we haven’t done anything yet,” McDowell said. “The race is not over. We could give up 100 runs next week. You start talking about your success, it will burn you. I know.”

Claire wanted Wilson because he throws hard and competes hard. The glove-pounding emotion he shows after working out of a jam is nothing compared to the cheerleading he does on the bench.

“The most rah-rah guy I have ever played with,” said Mitch Webster, who was also his teammate with the Cubs.

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Who would have guessed that from this “depth” would emerge two front-line stoppers?

“We do our homework,” Claire said with a smile.

In answer to the second question, they really aren’t doing it without Howell, the rest of the relief corps says.

“Every time we go to the mound, there is a piece of Jay in us,” McDowell said.

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The quote is corny, but it is a reflection of the bullpen’s feelings toward Howell, who hopes to be able to show his 15-save form again before the end of the season.

Even though he does not pitch, Howell still goes to the bullpen every game, still holds court on the strengths and weaknesses of opposing hitters, still exhorts his fellow relievers to approach the mound as if it were a battlefield.

“It’s like there is nothing different with him, which is important to us, because of the way he has been our steadying influence,” Gott said.

There have been other influences that have shaped the three men who have assumed Howell’srole.

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Gott wants to show that the Dodgers’ faith in him during the past two seasons, which included a $1.7-million contract this year, the largest in the bullpen until McDowell arrived, has not been a mistake.

McDowell wants to show that judging him by his struggles for the Philadelphia Phillies, who had relegated him to a setup role behind Mitch Williams, would be a mistake.

And Wilson wants a shot at erasing the memories of an autumn day in 1989.

While pitching for the Cubs in Game 4 of the league championship series, he gave up a two-run homer to Matt Williams in the fifth inning that gave the San Francisco Giants a 6-4 victory.

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After that game, as if he knew the Giants would win the series a day later, Wilson sat in front of his locker and wept.

“I have never in my life felt more responsible for a loss,” he said. “It took me a while to forget that.”

And it has taken until now, at the end of his seventh professional season, for somebody to realize that Wilson can close games. He came here with only three saves in his career.

“I never really thought much about being a stopper, either, and I still don’t,” Wilson said. “I just think getting into a game any time is a lot of fun.”

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Gott always felt the same way, although after walking Atlanta pitcher Kent Mercker with the bases loaded for the winning run in a memorable loss earlier this year, he wondered.

“I remember Mercker talking about how he had no chance of hitting that ball, and I thought, ‘You just don’t say things like that,’ ” Gott said. “This game will humble you in a minute. When you feel like you are on a roll, something will bite you.”

Gott is pitching so well that even Mercker has to notice. In two recent appearances against the Braves, Gott pitched shutout ball for 2 1/3 innings.

McDowell shares Gott’s attitude about success with, typically, a slightly different slant.

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“I’m glad people think we’re doing well without Jay, but who is to say Jay Howell doesn’t stick his elbow in a piece of chocolate cake and it heals?” McDowell said.

“Who says Jay isn’t back in a couple of days? Who knows what makes something like that feel better?

“You know, my wife’s grandfather had arthritis, and he put 3-in-1 oil on his joints, and it felt better. So who knows what can happen to this bullpen?”

After what has already happened, who knows?

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