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And for Their Next Trick ...

Times Staff Writer

A year ago, Dodger Manager Jim Tracy was in San Francisco, watching as his team lost to the Giants, 12-3, on the final day of the regular season. That left the Dodgers 85-77, 15 1/2 games out of the division lead.

Another 162-game journey had finished at a dead end for Tracy and his club. Ahead, as they made the short, somber trip home, lay a winter of discontent and uncertainty for many.

Frank McCourt was trying to find the financial means to realize his dream of owning a team. Paul DePodesta, rated as one of the top prospects for a major league general manager’s job, was trying to find somebody who would believe in him. Tracy was trying to find some way to reach the postseason that had eluded him in three seasons as a big league manager, as was outfielder Shawn Green, who was finishing his 12th season without a postseason to show for it. Third baseman Adrian Beltre was still trying to demonstrate he could be a complete player for a complete season. And pitcher Jose Lima, concluding his first decade in the big leagues with his third club, the Kansas City Royals, was just trying to survive.

Sunday, Tracy was again in the Dodger dugout, watching his team get blown out again by the Giants, 10-0. But this time, he was euphoric. It was a meaningless loss in a meaningful season for the Dodgers, the team having clinched the National League West title a day earlier.

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“We finally went over the final hurdle,” Tracy said. “It’s really special.”

After 162 games this season, the Dodgers have high hopes that their journey is just beginning. The team boarded a plane Sunday night for St. Louis, where on Tuesday afternoon at Busch Stadium, they and Cardinals will begin a best-of-five National League division series.

Game 2 will be in St. Louis on Thursday with Game 3 (and Game 4 if necessary) at Dodger Stadium on Saturday and Sunday. A fifth game would be in St. Louis next Monday.

Dodger left-hander Odalis Perez (7-6, 3.25 earned-run average) will be opposed by St. Louis right-hander Woody Williams (11-8, 4.18) Tuesday. The Dodgers will come back with Jeff Weaver (13-13, 4.01) Thursday against Jason Marquis (15-7, 3.70), and Lima (13-5, 4.07) will go against St. Louis’ Matt Morris (15-10, 4.72) Saturday. The Cardinals are expected to go with a four-man rotation, using Jeff Suppan (16-9, 4.16) should there be a fourth game. The Dodgers, opting for a three-man rotation, would come back with Perez, although that is subject to change depending on how long and how hard Perez works Tuesday.

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True, the Dodgers (93-69) are facing a team that finished the regular season 105-57, the best record in the majors, including an NL-best 53-28 at home.

It’s also true the Dodgers were swept at St. Louis in a three-game series in early September. But they came back a week later to take two of three from the Cardinals at Dodger Stadium.

Any discussion of the Dodgers begins with their almost mystical rallies, their franchise-record 53 come-from-behind victories, their 26 wins in their final at-bat. Saturday’s stunning, seven-run ninth inning in a 7-3 victory over the Giants is a prime example. It was spearheaded by a bloop single, three walks, and an error by the Giants’ Cody Ransom -- a shortstop put in for defensive purposes. Only after all that did the Dodgers conclude their unlikely triumph with some muscle, a line-drive single by Jayson Werth and a grand slam by Steve Finley.

Skill is essential. Skill and karma can be unbeatable.

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There is nothing mystical about the Cardinals. Any discussion about them has to begin with the National League’s leading offense (.278 average), led by Albert Pujols (.331 average, 46 home runs and 123 runs batted in), Scott Rolen (.314, 34, 124) and Jim Edmonds (.301, 42, 111).

“I didn’t feel like they were overwhelming offensively in any of the six games,” Tracy said. “I think we pitched well in all six games.”

There is only one viable philosophy for a pitcher facing the Cardinals, according to Lima.

“You don’t try to pitch around them,” he said. “You have to challenge them. The more pitches you throw, the more chances they will get you. They just wait for you to make a mistake.”

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As for the Dodgers’ uncanny ability to rally, forget about it against the Cardinals, Lima said.

“They are not going to let you come back. Trust me,” he said.

But for so many in the Dodger organization, the odds against their team in this series pale in comparison to negative projections about their own individual chances for success a year ago.

McCourt has gotten his team, DePodesta has his job, Tracy and Green have their long-awaited postseason, Beltre has had an MVP-type season -- his 48 homers led the major leagues -- and Lima has found new life in Dodger blue.

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So hold the dire predictions. They’ve heard it all before.


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