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Dodgers Can’t Knock Saberhagen Off Pedestal : Baseball: Pitcher isn’t sharp in his Colorado debut, but that doesn’t matter to fans.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They lined up for three blocks Thursday morning to buy tickets. No one seemed to mind that the game was still four hours away and it had started to rain.

This was a chance to see pitcher Bret Saberhagen make his debut for the Colorado Rockies, and it was the hottest ticket in town.

The Mile High City hasn’t been this excited to see someone since Pope John Paul II visited in the summer of 1993.

“I felt almost like God the way they were putting me on a pedestal,” Saberhagen said. “It was probably the most nerve-racking game I’ve ever been in.

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“I was so nervous because I didn’t want to let anybody down.”

It was by no means a vintage Saberhagen performance, but time and time again during the Rockies’ 9-4 victory over the Dodgers, the sellout crowd of 48,024 at Coors Field let Saberhagen know just how much he’s appreciated.

“We’re not calling him Saberhagen anymore,” Rocky catcher Joe Girardi said. “It’s Saviorhagen .”

Saberhagen’s performance--he gave up 13 hits and four runs in 6 1/3 innings--not only prevented a Dodger sweep, but left the Rockies with the feeling that they’re still the team to beat in the National League West. They hold a 2 1/2-game lead over the Dodgers, and as every citizen in Denver can tell you, their magic number is now 52.

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“That was a critical game for us,” Colorado Manager Don Baylor said. “We came out with a different attitude. We were going to win this game somehow.

“It’s got to be frustrating for [the Dodgers] that they played so well and couldn’t sweep us.”

Said outfielder Larry Walker, who hit one of three home runs for the Rockies: “It’s no time to set the fireworks off. There’s still a long ways to go. But anyone in here will tell you how big of a boost Saberhagen was to this team.

“It was just great not having to go out there and having to come back early. He proved why he’s a big-time pitcher.”

Saberhagen, who has two Cy Young awards and a 1985 World Series most-valuable-player trophy sitting at home, actually felt like a kid in Marine boot camp. He tried to act calm around his teammates, but the truth was that he had never been so nervous in his life.

“I had to have somebody feed me some water because I couldn’t hold a cup in my hand,” Saberhagen said. “You should have seen me warming up in the bullpen. I think I threw three balls to the backstop.

“Believe me, it was a bad gut feeling.”

It hardly calmed the nerves when he walked to the mound to the chorus of a raucous standing ovation. He calmed down enough to retire the first two batters, gave up singles to Raul Mondesi and Mike Piazza to end any illusions he was invincible, then ended the inning by making Eric Karros pop up.

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He walked off the mound, and again he was greeted by a standing ovation. This became a regular occurrence at the end of each inning he pitched and each time he stepped to the plate.

When Saberhagen was removed from the game, with the Rockies clinging to a 5-4 lead and the potential tying run on second, the crowd roared again.

The Dodgers, who now had rid themselves of Saberhagen, needed only a pinch-hit off reliever Lance Painter to tie the score.

They had gone six innings without producing an extra-base hit among their 10 hits, but in the seventh, they knocked Saberhagen out of the game with consecutive doubles by Todd Hollandsworth, Roberto Kelly and Dave Hansen.

Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda, who allowed starter Ramon Martinez to bat for himself in the fourth and fifth innings with the bases loaded, this time turned to pinch-hitter Mitch Webster. He grounded to third for the second out, and Painter struck out Chad Fonville to end the inning.

The Rockies, who provided Saberhagen with a 4-0 lead in the first inning on home runs by Dante Bichette and Vinny Castilla, ended any suspense in the bottom of the seventh against the Dodger bullpen. Getting three walks, a hit batter and a two-run triple by Andres Galarraga, Colorado scored three runs for an 8-4 lead.


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