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And Now Comes the Scary Part

It’s not a month, it’s a monster, four weeks that can swallow a summer.

“When you think about it,” says Robin Ventura, “you just can’t think about it.”

It’s not about a calendar, but a conviction, the days reduced to moments of joy and fear and discovery.

“Everything disappears,” says Steve Finley, “and it’s all about one at-bat, one inning, one game.”

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Welcome to September.

Or, in Dodger lingo, Think Cruel Month.

They left Dodger Stadium late Tuesday night in the best of circumstances and the worst of situations.

They are leading the National League West by six games in the loss column with 16 of their last 25 games at home.

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But they were burdened by the weight of recent Dodger Septembers, a load that the most wretched team in recent baseball history could barely ease.

The Dodgers’ 8-2 win over the double-A Arizona Diamondbacks inched them closer to October, but the month is still young.

What happens to a team that has been in contention two of the last three Septembers, yet each time has slowly dissolved like crowds at the beach?

Three years ago, on Sept. 7, they were one game behind the first-place Diamondbacks.

They proceeded to lose 11 of their next 13.

Two years ago, with nine games remaining, they were one game behind the San Francisco Giants in the wild-card race.

They lost two of their next four games and, well, the Giants didn’t.

“September is not a time when you play not to lose,” says Ventura, who has survived a few hot Septembers with grand slams like the one he hit Tuesday. “This is a time when you have to play to win.”

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Around here, September has been Gary Sheffield being ejected in the first inning of an important game for arguing strikes.

It has been Chan Ho Park asking out of a game because he was suffering a leg cramp.

It has been about the San Diego Padres summoning anger and inspiration over what they considered a showboat home-run trot by ... Alex Cora?

Recent Septembers at Chavez Ravine have been as pretty as recent Junes at Staples.

Even when the Dodgers have survived the season, they’ve lost the month.

Remember the last time they entered the playoffs, as a wild-card team in 1996? Remember how the regular season ended?

Swept by the San Diego Padres, they were.

Which brings us to this September, a month that began with four losses in five games before Tuesday’s arrival of those belly-crawlers bearing gifts.

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“This is right where we want to be,” Manager Jim Tracy protested, but why didn’t it feel like it?

In the three-game sweep by the St. Louis Cardinals, who appeared to barely break a sweat in a supposed playoff preview, the Dodger offense drew only one walk.

Neither money ball nor Moneyball, it seemed.

The losing pitcher in one of their previous five September games was Giovanni Carrara, a midseason replacement for traded Guillermo Mota.

The losing pitcher in another game was Hideo Nomo, a late-season replacement for, well, Hideo Nomo.

The truth is that the Dodgers don’t need to be the fastest kid on the league, they only need to be faster than San Francisco and San Diego, and on that count, the playoffs seem a likely destination.

But stranger things have happened, and questions need to be asked.

Do they have the manager for September?

Jim Tracy’s record in three Septembers here is 43-44, the worst stretch of any of his seasons.

Three Septembers ago, he was ripped for bringing Park out of the bullpen. Last September, he was ripped for not bringing in Eric Gagne.in relief.

Yet this year he has seemed to find the right mix of aggressive and calm in essentially managing two teams -- pre-trade and post-trade -- into first place.

Tracy would be a clear choice for National League Manager of the Year if the season ended today.

As longtime Dodger fans know, it does not.

Do they have the bullpen for September?

Since the trade of Mota, starters have been stretched and middle guys have been pushed and even though Yhency Brazoban has been a revelation, two stats stick out.

Before the trade, they were 44-0 when leading after seven innings. Since the trade, they are 15-3.

Do they have the stuff for September?

Can Shawn Green and Milton Bradley break out of slumps? Can either catcher break some bats? Can Steve Finley play younger? Can Hee-Seop Choi play, period?

The only thing certain, September will tell all, with only the best stories stretching through October.

The 35,078 fans at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday barely seemed to notice when the scoreboard initially showed the Giants losing to the Colorado Rockies, and with good reason.

Crowds here have long since learned, the only thing that matters is the makeup of the team in front of them.

“September can make you,” Finley said. “September can save you.”

Or, in the case of the Dodgers, it can do both.

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To red previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.


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