Is This Heaven? No, It’s Lima, and That’s Close Enough
“Lee-ma, Lee-ma, Lee-ma!”
He screamed, he laughed, he danced, he prayed, he hugged, he kissed, he sweated, he shook, then he threw his first pitch.
He hollered to the press box for somebody to turn up the merengue music. He chanted into his glove about throwing strikes. He shouted oddly to the sky while running into the dugout after every inning.
We have no idea what he was saying, but that’s OK, because neither did he.
“Lee-ma, Lee-ma, Lee-ma!”
Before the game, he drew his family’s initials in the dirt behind the pitching rubber. Afterward, he dropped to his knees, rubbed his fist into the dirt, whispered to himself.
“I leave my heart here today.”
And stole ours.
“Lee-ma, Lee-ma, Lee-ma!”
Sorry, can’t help it, the chant is in my head as improbably as Jose Lima is in the Dodger scrapbooks after saving a charmed season and ending a nasty streak.
It being 16 years since we’ve seen one of these things, help us out here.
Did a guy who had one shutout in his previous 199 big league starts actually throw a five-hit shutout against the mighty St. Louis Cardinals on Saturday night?
Did that performance really give the Dodgers their first playoff win since 1988, a 4-0 victory?
And did that victory truly stave off elimination in a division series that the Cardinals now lead, two games to one?
Heavens to Belcher.
Well, I’ll be Heeped.
“If you don’t believe in the Dodgers, you’ve got issues,” said Lima afterward. “Big-time issues.”
It’s was hard not to believe in something Saturday, what with the old house shaking as it has not shaken in two decades, with thousands of white towels flapping in encouragement instead of surrender.
And has any athlete in this town other than Kobe Bryant ever heard his two-syllable name chanted as much?
Lima not only threw in a three-pointer at the buzzer, but threw it in during an elimination game, and after not making a three-pointer in years.
Pounded his fist into his chest and everything.
“They were chanting my name, I didn’t know whether to cry or say, ‘Stop, stop, stop,’ ” said Lima.
It was indeed confusing, watching Lima fool the best hitting team in the National League with such dexterity that in one stretch he retired six consecutive hitters on 11 pitches.
Then there was his batting, equally confusing after he found himself in the middle of a rally that started with a blown call.
Yes, not only was Lima good, he was lucky, after his third-inning sacrifice bunt hit his bat twice, which should have resulted in a foul ball.
But the umpires never saw it. So when catcher Mike Matheny’s throw to Edgar Renteria was late and Brent Mayne was safe and the bases were loaded, the play stood.
Two outs later, Steve Finley’s broken-bat liner down the third-base line scored the only two runs that Lima would need.
“That ball never hit anything!” Lima protested later, even as the umpires were admitting it should have been a foul ball. “I swear to you!”
On Saturday he was truly the master of all spin, from the pitches that held a five-homer team to five singles, to the pep talks on the field.
Did you see him barking into his glove?
“I was telling myself, ‘Throw a strike here, get this guy out, just one strike,’ ” he said.
And when he was pumping his fists and screaming every time he ran off?
“I was telling myself, ‘You’re the best’ ... or something like that,” he said with a grin.
It was fitting that the afternoon began with owner Frank McCourt giving the team a pep talk about having nothing to lose.
If that concept had its own postage stamp, it would contain Lima’s face.
Less than two years ago, he was considered so washed up, the only team that would hire him was the independent Newark Bears.
He later caught a ride with the Kansas City Royals, won eight games for that rotten team, and they still didn’t want him.
So he was signed to a minor league contract this winter by Dan Evans, partially because Evans thought the clubhouse could use an interesting character.
Turns out, nobody has been interested more than Dodger fans, whose influence helped him go 9-1 with a 3.08 ERA at home this year while struggling at 4-4 with a 5.56 ERA on the road.
“You could say it’s the ballpark, but I really think it’s the fans,” said Mayne. “He loves them, and they love him, and it really works.”
The show began Saturday during batting practice, when the public address system stopped playing Lima’s trademark merengue music because McCourt was addressing stadium employees.
Lima stepped outside the batting cage and began shouting and gesturing to the folks upstairs.
“I was furious at them,” he said. “You do not change my routine. Mr. McCourt is the owner, and we love him, but cannot mess with Lima Time.”
In the end, the sky screamed back, filling Lima with such inspiration that he emerged from the dugout to take a curtain call.
With one inning left in the game.
Even though the fans had not really asked for it.
And now for the real curtain call.
“I’ve got one inning in me for Monday,” he said Saturday night, grabbing his arm, filling the crowded clubhouse with laughter, the game long over, every clock still on Lima Time.
Bill Plaschke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.