PITTSBURGH -- By the end of the six-game homestand that starts tonight at Dodger Stadium, the Dodgers could very well be crowned the champions of the NL West.
They’re playing the San Francisco Giants for the first three games and they won’t face Tim Lincecum.
They were 7-3 on the 10-game, three-city trip that concluded Thursday with a 4-3, 12-inning victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates. The lead is 3 1/2 games over Arizona and the magic number is seven.
And if the scene in the manager’s office at PNC Park was any indication, they aren’t tightening up because the stakes are rising.
Manager Joe Torre was addressing reporters when Manny Ramirez, chest bare and towel around his waist, walked into the room. Without saying a word, Ramirez nudged his way by the media pack and turned into the adjacent shower stall set aside for the visiting manager.
What . . . ?
Torre started laughing. Only moments earlier, he was complaining, half-seriously and half-jokingly, about how hard his job was this day.
“Here’s my man,” Torre said, a question directed at him about Scott Proctor’s resurgence temporarily forgotten. Calling to Ramirez, he said, “You’re the best.”
Torre shook his head.
Over the entire trip, tense moments were broken up with this kind of laughter. Recovering from a misstep wasn’t the ordeal it was on their previous 10-game voyage, which they started with a season-long eight-game losing streak.
Each of the three times the Dodgers lost on this trip, they came back to win the next game. They didn’t play well Thursday, blowing two leads and wasting several chances with men in scoring position, but they did enough to win. Clayton Kershaw had control problems and described his start as “bad everything,” but he limited the Pirates to a run and two hits over five innings.
“How you deal with the losses is what makes your team and what keeps the confidence going,” said James Loney, who broke the stalemate Thursday by driving in Russell Martin on a bases-loaded single in the 12th.
With nine games left in the season and players tiring, this mind-set could be what makes a difference for these Dodgers.
There were signs in Pittsburgh that the Dodgers’ bullpen might be vulnerable, particularly with the status of Hong-Chih Kuo unknown. Kuo, who played catch Thursday and will throw off a mound today, has pitched once in the last 11 days because of discomfort in his elbow.
The Dodgers’ relievers gave up eight runs Wednesday and two leads Thursday.
Takashi Saito, pitching for the second time since being activated from the disabled list, inherited a 2-1 lead from Kershaw in the sixth, but gave up a run in a laborious 25-pitch inning.
“I was able to throw the ball at the height that I wanted, but I left the ball over the plate,” Saito said.
Saito didn’t sound encouraged.
“Joe can use me however he wants,” he said. “I don’t want to be a burden on the team.”
The Dodgers reclaimed the lead at 3-2 in the seventh, but Cory Wade let the Pirates even the score in the bottom of the inning. The runs were the first given up in nine outings by Wade, who pitched five times on this trip.
Not even the final outs came easy.
With two outs and Nyjer Morgan on third base after a walk and stolen base, Jonathan Broxton put the potential winning run on base by intentionally walking Nate McLouth. Then he got Jason Michaels to pop up to end the game.
Broxton said he didn’t expect the end of the season to be easy either. Asked about the possibility of clinching the division title at home, he replied, “You can’t look that far ahead. You start looking ahead, you start messing up games.”