Tapani Can Right All His Wrongs Tonight : Baseball: Late-season acquisition has struggled, but he'll get a big shot at redemption.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He could not have envisioned this during spring training with the low budget, rebuilding Minnesota Twins.

On the other hand . . .

"When you're 25 out and it's not even the All-Star break," Kevin Tapani was saying Tuesday night, "every start becomes something of a must win. It's just that it was the other end of the spectrum."

The basement compared to the penthouse. A long way, indeed, from the must-win reality of tonight's assignment for Tapani in the aftermath of the Dodgers' 7-3 loss to the Colorado Rockies on Tuesday night.

With the rubber arms of their revolving-door bullpen matching the tenacity of starter Bret Saberhagen, the Rockies regained a half-game lead in the National League West--and more.

A victory tonight would put the Rockies 1 1/2 games ahead, with four remaining games against the San Francisco Giants, all at Coors Field where they are 42-26.

The Dodgers are off Thursday and open a three-game series in San Diego on Friday night. Even with a loss tonight the Rockies are now in position to forge a tie for the division lead by beating the Giants on Thursday, while the Dodgers are idle. If the Rockies win tonight and Thursday, they would suddenly be two up, with Dodger hopes virtually reduced to the wild card.

A must win?

"I try to approach every game with the attitude that I can't afford to lose," Tapani said. "I think it's important to stay on an even keel, to look on every game as an important game. I'm not suddenly going to be throwing 100 m.p.h. because this is an important game. That's not what I do."

It is the type of assignment, however, for which Tapani was acquired on the night of the July 31 trade deadline--a veteran right-hander with experience in pennant and postseason games to fill the final piece in the rotation puzzle.

Tapani has had a difficult time acclimating, however, he is 3-2 with a 5.12 earned-run average in 10 starts and 12 appearances.

At Dodger Stadium, he is 0-1 with an 11.77 earned run average in 13 innings.

Has he been pressing in an attempt to justify the trade?

"I think it's human nature," Tapani said. "I've been trying too hard, trying to do too much. I know it, but it's a tough thing to fix.

"My whole game is location. If I try to do too much with a pitch I have the tendency to leave it up or over the middle of the plate.

"The other part of being a location pitcher is knowing hitters, but I'm basically working off scouting reports.

"I'm doing a lot of on-the-job training, pitching to hitters I've never seen before. It's like being a rookie again."

Said catcher Mike Piazza: "Anytime you come into a new situation it's only natural to be tentative with some pitches and too aggressive with others. Kevin isn't going to light up speed guns stuffwise, but he's been consistent throughout his career and I still think that consistency and experience is going to come through for us. There are better days ahead of him with the Dodgers."

The clock is ticking. Unsigned for 1996, it's conceivable Tapani could be making his last start for the Dodgers tonight.

"The law of averages is weighing on my side," he said. "I'm looking to pitch a good game in this park, but when there are four or five games to go and you're fighting for first place, there's no reason to be disappointed with individual performances [to this point]. You throw that out. The only thing that matters now is what happens next."

It's critical what happens next for the Dodgers, and Tapani will be the individual with the ball.

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