The closer the Dodgers move to the NL West title, the louder the ballpark becomes.
What started as scattered applause when the video scoreboard over the left-field stands relayed news that second-place Arizona had lost, turned into a stadium-rocking celebration when Manny Ramirez crushed a two-run home run in the sixth inning that opened a three-run lead and sent the Dodgers to a 12-4 victory over the San Diego Padres on Wednesday night.
With the magic number for the Dodgers to win the division down to one, the NL West crown could be theirs by the time they show up for their final regular-season game of the season at Dodger Stadium, as the Diamondbacks play in St. Louis at 11:15 a.m.
“We still have a little work to do,” Manager Joe Torre said. “Hopefully, we can do it tomorrow, either on their timetable or ours.”
Though Torre said he would rest his regular position players today if the Diamondbacks lose, he stated that the Dodgers wouldn’t be spraying any champagne until after their own game tonight.
The paid crowd of 44,776 fans that was at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday already started celebrating, as Ramirez’s 17th home run as a Dodger was only one of several cues for them to jump and shout.
They roared when Nomar Garciaparra hit his second home run in as many nights. They rose to their feet when Jeff Kent hit for the first time for in almost a month.
They did the same when Rafael Furcal played his first game in 4 1/2 months.
“When I came in, I wasn’t thinking about the postseason or anything,” said Ramirez, who has driven in 53 runs with the Dodgers.
“I was just trying to fit in, play the game and show people that I play hard.”
But this two-month audition for free agency has turned into something more, at least for the fans who cheered loud and long enough to get Ramirez to acknowledge them.
Ramirez treated this home run like any other, slapping hands with Russell Martin at home plate, removing his helmet, ducking into the dugout and sinking onto the bench.
He had no choice but to re-emerge and tip his helmet to the roaring crowd, which produced chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P!”
Ramirez’s former Boston teammate, Garciaparra, gave the Dodgers their initial push. Starting over James Loney for the second consecutive day, he cut into a 2-0 deficit in the fourth inning with a solo home run off Padres starter Shawn Estes.
Casey Blake drew a walk in the next at-bat and later tied the score at 2-2 on a single to left-center by Matt Kemp.
Garciaparra also led their two-run charge in the fifth inning that put the Dodgers ahead, 4-2, as his double drove in Andre Ethier from first for the go-ahead run.
Garciaparra moved to third on a groundout by Blake and scored on a squeeze play by Angel Berroa.
With two out in the bottom of the seventh and the Dodgers holding a 6-4 lead because of Ramirez’s home run, Kent walked into the batter’s box on a left knee that was surgically repaired on Sept. 2.
Kent received a standing ovation when he was introduced and received another after he lined an 0-and 1 pitch to right field for a single.
He was immediately replaced by pinch-runner Jason Repko.
For Kent, the at-bat was his first since Aug. 29.
“I’ve had the luxury playing this game for 17 to 18 years,” said the 40-year-old Kent. “But it never feels natural when you miss that much time.”
The Dodgers scored six runs in an eighth inning highlighted by a two-run double by Loney.
Furcal, who last played on May 5 and underwent back surgery on July 3, also received a standing ovation when he pinch-hit in that inning.
He struck out, but nonetheless retreated to the dugout to applause.
Reaping the rewards was 20-year-old Clayton Kershaw, who improved to 5-5 in his last start of the regular season.
Kershaw, who gave up three runs and six hits over 5 2/3 innings, struck out seven, walked two and delivered 91 pitches.
“This kid came out and was as calm as I’ve seen him,” said Torre, adding that he wouldn’t be afraid to start him in a playoff game.