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Sampling Easternmost in quality

Times Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA -- Although the Dodgers already have lost as many games in August as they did in either April or May, they woke up this morning in Philadelphia to find themselves in the thick of a pennant race.

However, with six consecutive games against the Phillies and Mets, it’s the National League East pennant race the Dodgers find themselves in the middle of. Getting back into the thick of the race in the NL West will require a bit more work -- and for Manager Grady Little, there’s little time left to waste.

“We don’t have a choice. We have to win games right now,” he said. “And we have to win more than our share. That’s what you have to do when you fall six games back.”

Actually it was 6 1/2 entering Monday, only one game better than the biggest deficit they’ve faced all season. But first-place Arizona’s loss Monday night trimmed the deficit back to six, and with four wins in their last five games and coming off their first winning homestand since mid-June, the Dodgers feel they’re finally headed in the right direction.

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The question now is, is it too late? The Dodgers have only 38 games left in which to make up that deficit and they’ll have to climb over at least two teams to do it.

Their task in the wild-card race isn’t much easier. Although they’re only 2 1/2 games off the lead there, they trail three teams -- and lead two others by one game or less.

“Every game we have to win,” reliever Rudy Seanez said. “We can’t be so relaxed that we’re waiting for someone to lose. We have to win.”

But just don’t call these must-win games, warns second baseman Jeff Kent. Three years ago, he played for a Houston team that began a mid-August trip through New York and Philadelphia under .500 and 17 1/2 games behind in the NL Central race. But the Astros rallied to win their final seven games and nine of their last 10 to clinch the wild-card berth on the last day of the season.

The Dodgers did much the same thing last September, winning their final seven and nine of their last 10 to tie San Diego atop the NL West and beat out the Phillies for the wild card.

“We were left for dead and we came back,” Kent said of those Astros. “And we aren’t there here. . . . To lie to the fans and to lie to ourselves and say these are must-win [games], they’re not. That’s added pressure that you don’t need. You’ve just got to be able to keep it under control and know that all these games -- not just this road trip -- but all these games are going to be important.”

The games will prove whether the Dodgers are contenders or simply pretenders. The team tumbled from first place to its current standing by losing 10 of 14 games to teams with losing records. Now it will try to climb out while playing its next six against the top two teams in the NL East, 16 of its next 19 on the road and 29 of its final 38 games against teams currently above .500.

“If we’re playing good baseball and executing, we feel like we can beat anybody. And if we’re not, we feel like we can get beaten by a lower-ranked club,” Little said. “So it doesn’t matter. You have to play good baseball. We have to look at ourselves and do the best we can.

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“If we’re not swinging the bats good and we’re not pitching good, it doesn’t matter who we’re playing. The results are bad. [But] if we’re executing offensively and get some halfway decent pitching and take a lead late in the game, we feel very confident.”

Confident enough to start planning for the playoffs?

“I feel like we’re in the race right now,” said catcher Russell Martin, who scored the winning run in Sunday’s come-from-behind 4-3 win over Colorado. “I think everybody’s mind-set is baseball in October.”

Added Juan Pierre, who batted .433 and stole five bases on the seven-game homestand: “It’s a matter of going out there and doing it now.”

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Times staff writer Dylan Hernandez contributed to this report.

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Swinging away

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Phillies slugger Ryan Howard is often all or nothing, as evidenced by his 33 home runs and 149 strikeouts. Lately, Howard has been a little more on the nothing side, hitting .188 in August with only five extra-base hits. Fortunately for the Phillies and their cleanup batter, the Dodgers will start right-hander Brett Tomko in tonight’s series opener. Howard has four hits in five at-bats against Tomko, and what makes their previous battles interesting is how quickly they were over. Through Sunday’s games, Howard ranked second in the majors in the percentage of at-bats that reached two strikes. A whopping 60% of his at-bats have passed through a two-strike count. The league average is 47%. But in five plate appearances against Tomko, Howard has rarely seen a second pitch, let alone a second strike.

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Swinging away

*--* Date Count Pitch Type Result Aug. 23, 2005 0-0 Fastball Double Aug. 23, 2005 0-0 Slider Taken strike 0-1 Curve HR April 7, 2006 0-0 Fastball Single April 7, 2006 0-0 Changeup Taken Strike 0-1 Fastball Single April 7, 2006 0-0 Fastball Flyout *--*

Source: Inside Edge Scouting Service


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