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Dodgers Slide Into Second : And Now to Find Out If They Can Handle Trail

The last time these Dodgers were knocked down, they stayed down.

It was the first weekend in August, the hook thrown by Sammy Sosa, a 12th-inning home run deep into a Chicago night.

When Todd Worrell threw the pitch, the Dodgers were tied for first place with the San Francisco Giants.

When the ball finally landed, they were in second.

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Where they wandered around for 21 days.

And so in this odd place where clubhouse chemistry has resulted from winning--and not the other way around--the worst possible thing happened Friday.

The Dodgers were knocked down again.

But without 21 days to make it right.

Oh, but for the late great Burgess Meredith and a water bucket.

These Dodgers will have to settle for Bill Russell, their squinty-eyed boss upon whom the focus rests after his team’s tumble from the NL West lead.

With 15 games remaining, can he do with the Dodgers what Dusty Baker has done with the Giants?

Can he make them believe they are a first-place team when they are not in first place?

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Baker has fiddled masterfully during the last three weeks, holding an average team together with a championship touch.

During a sprint that has hobbled greater men than these--c’mon, Brian Johnson?--he convinced the Giants that those short, rapid breaths were not theirs, but the Dodgers.

Now it is Russell’s turn.

Now it is the Dodgers who have lost control of their destiny, who must rely as much on faith as fastballs.

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Is it just me, or did anybody else think that Friday’s swing of one game felt like 10?

You can analyze everything from the Dodgers and Giants remaining schedule (advantage Giants) to their playoff-tested rosters (advantage Giants), but the skinny is this:

Fred Claire has put a winner in the Dodger dugout. It is up to Russell to close the deal.

Most bosses probably would like more than a year on the job before facing such a test, but these are the Dodgers, and Tom Lasorda is out there watching somewhere, and Rupert Murdoch is out there watching. . . .

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And thousands were glued to the TV Friday when Ross Porter--bless his decimal heart--gave 10 Giant updates in one hour.

One of those fans was owner Peter O’Malley, who had a TV blaring in the house, and a portable radio in the garage, and four other radios around the house in case he needed to leave his seat.

“The next two weeks are going to be tough,” O’Malley said shortly after the Giants’ final score was announced. “We are going to be in first place, out of first place. There will be twists and turns. I think we’re prepared for it.”

Does that include Russell? If he not, the Dodgers are not.

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This was never more clear than Friday, where signs of trouble were everywhere in their wholly unnecessary loss to the Astros.

First, there is the dilemma that is Chan Ho Park.

He is not experienced to lead a pitching staff in a championship race. He has the stuff, but not the scars.

But with Ramon Martinez’s comeback bitten by reality and Hideo Nomo pitching like a leading candidate for an off-season trade, Park is the best they have.

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So it’s time for Russell to take a little visit inside his head.

Remind him that walking an opposing pitcher like Shane Reynolds is dumb (he scored), and hanging a 1-and-2 pitch to limping Sean Berry is dumber (his double scored a run).

And then tell him that falling behind 3-and-0 to a 27-RBI man like Ricky Gutierrez (his single scored a run that sealed the deal) is likely to make teammates cut up your best suit.

Certainly, Park is exhausted, even with a recent 10-day rest that made sense at the time. But these days, everyone is exhausted.

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When Russell is finished with Park, he needs to step outside with the top half of the offense. Well, OK, with Eric Young.

During the current four-game losing streak, Young has two hits in 16 at-bats while scoring one run. On Friday he spent most of his plate time arguing with umpire Gary Darling.

Not only is it foolish to argue strikes during a championship race (anybody remember Kal Daniels?), but it’s also indicative of a player who has fallen and can’t get up.

This is not Young. He was running and inspiring this team as recently as a week ago. The only thing that has changed is the pressure.

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It is up to Russell to remind Young, and impatient teammates who made Reynolds look like Roger Clemens, how to handle it.

One way is to not panic.

Asking Mike Piazza to play the rest of the games is panicking.

Asking Eric Karros to finish the season as the team’s only player to start every game this year--especially with Eddie Murray in the dugout--is panicking.

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Changing the starting rotation is panicking.

So far, Russell has done a decent job shaping this team to fit his solid, unperturbed image.

But as of Friday night, his job has just begun.


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