Down to the Wire : Saberhagen, Walker Put Rockies on Top

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Dodgers had no idea what to say, no idea how to act, and no idea what's going to happen next.

What they will tell you after losing, 7-3, to the Colorado Rockies on Tuesday is that tonight they'll be playing their biggest game of the season and, for many, the biggest game of their lives.

The Dodgers (75-65) fell one-half game behind the Rockies (75-64) in the National League West race in front of a paid crowd of 44,415 at Dodger Stadium. Another defeat tonight would leave them on the critical list--two games back in the loss column with only three games remaining.

"To me," center fielder Brett Butler said, "it's a must win."

The Dodgers are only one-half game ahead of the Houston Astros (74-65) in the wild-card race, but they have the same amount of losses. Certainly, they realize their situation has become precarious at best in their bid for their first playoff berth since winning the World Series in 1988.

And perhaps the worst thing that happened to the Dodgers is that the Rockies now have newfound confidence, and figure that even with a loss, they're in decent shape. A Rockies' victory tonight would leave them close to a postseason berth in only their third year in existence.

"We're not cracking out the champagne yet," said right fielder Larry Walker, who hit two home runs off Dodger starter Tom Candiotti (7-14). "This is nowhere near being over."

Walker and Saberhagen stepped to the stage Tuesday. Walker provided the Rockies with a 4-2 lead with his homers, and Saberhagen kept the Dodgers in check until he stepped aside for Colorado's vaunted bullpen in the sixth.

The Rockies then pulled away when Ellis Burks hit a two-run, two-out single in the eighth.

Joe Girardi drove in another run in the ninth.

Saberhagen, who 10 years ago pitched a shutout in Game 7 of the World Series for the Kansas City Royals, provided the Rockies with their inspiration and certainly proved to the Dodgers why he's one of the fiercest competitors in baseball.

Saberhagen, who needs arthroscopic shoulder surgery in the off-season, displayed an act of bravado in the third inning that might have turned the game around.

The Dodgers, ahead 1-0, had a chance to break the game open with one out. Chad Fonville hit a chopper off the plate, and Saberhagen's throw to first sailed into right field, allowing Fonville to reach third.

Mike Piazza was up with Eric Karros on deck. Saberhagen was in trouble. The duo entered the game batting a combined .322 with 62 home runs and 195 runs batted in.

Yet, Piazza swung at the first pitch and fouled out to catcher Girardi. Karros swung at the first pitch and fouled out to first baseman Andres Galarraga.

Saberhagen jumped, pumped his right fist and stared into the Dodger dugout.

The crowd booed, but Saberhagen laughed, high-fiving his way through the Rocky dugout.

"I'm a very emotional guy," said Saberhagen, who's 2-0 against the Dodgers since joining the Rockies and winless in his other six starts. "It was not to show up the Dodgers, but it was a very important game."

Saberhagen's heroics proved to be an omen for the fateful sixth. The Dodgers knocked Saberhagen out of the game, added a run--cutting the lead to 4-3--and loaded the bases with one out for Piazza and Karros.

Baylor summoned right-handed reliever Darren Holmes, who came up through the Dodger organization and was traded away in 1990.

If he has ever been in a more hairy situation with higher stakes, he sure couldn't remember it.

Holmes retired Piazza on a pop-up to second base. That brought up Karros, batting .357 with runners in scoring position but hitless in six at-bats with the bases loaded.

Make that zero for seven. Holmes struck him out on a 2-2 pitch.

Piazza and Karros, who have led the Dodgers all season, went one for nine and hit the ball out of the infield only once. They combined to strand 12 runners.

"Mike and I had our opportunities," Karros said, "but we didn't take advantage."

Said Candiotti, shaking his head at the .444 career batting average and four home runs he has yielded to Walker: "I think [tonight's game] is critical. Right now, we have destiny in our own hand. If we win the rest of our games, we'll win the division.

"To say we don't have the talent to do that, we do."

* THE HOT SEAT: Kevin Tapani, 0-1 with an 11.77 ERA at Dodger Stadium, gets the start tonight. C4

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National League Playoff Race

The standings and remaining schedule for the National League West:

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W L Pct. GB Colorado 75 64 .540 -- Dodgers 75 65 .536 1/2 San Diego 68 72 .486 7 1/2 San Francisco 65 74 .468 10

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Today: Colorado at Dodgers, San Diego at San Francisco

Thursday through Sunday: San Francisco at Colorado

Friday through Sunday: Dodgers at San Diego

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