There was a time — and not so long ago — that the Los Angeles Dodgers were the best team in the National League, and perhaps the best in baseball. That wasn’t true from the end of JulyÂ through the first part of September, when the team seemed to struggle to win games and the Redbirds surged. That’s not to say that the Trolleys didn’t win, they did: but hardly at the same rate as in the first four months of the season, when their young pitching staff was the talk of baseball. There were low points, head scratching series that saw the listless Dodgers incapable of mounting their usual barrage of hits, or keeping their starters in games much past the sixth inning: the Trolleys lost three of four to the Redbirds at the end of July, then two of three to the Brewers, then three of four to the Braves. The losses to the Braves were particularly hard to take: they were all at home — and they weren’t even close. It was puzzling. Suddenly, the Trolleys — though sailing along in first place — lookedÂ vulnerable.Â
Oddly (or perhaps predictably), the struggles of the L.A. Nine seemed to coincide with the return of Manny Ramirez, whose fifty game suspension actually energized the Chavez sluggers, giving new life to replacement Juan Pierre and Joe Torre’s raft of young boppers — particularly Andre Ethier (.283, 31 HRs) and first basemanÂ James LoneyÂ (.283, 13 HRs).Â Â Baseball’sÂ community of pundits oohed and ahhed over Manny’s return (noting, and it seemed endlessly), that he remained “the best righthanded hitter in baseball,” but they couldn’t help wondering how the return of Pierre to the L.A. bench would effect Joe Torre’s mix. Good point: for instead of further energizing an already great squad, Manny’s appearanceÂ in Dodger Blue seemed to dampen L.A.’s race to the N.L. West title: the streakyÂ Colorado Helton’s gained ground on L.A. and even the light hitting San Francisco McCoveys seemed resurgent.
But over the last two weeks all of that has changed. While the RockiesÂ remain within spitting distance of first place, the Trolleys have reasserted their control over the division — most recently humbling McCovey ace Tim Lincecum.Â “This club is playing with a purpose right now,” said manager Joe Torre. “They understand what’s out there and what’s at stake and they can’t expect anyone else to do it for them.” A lot of Dodgers point to the resurgence in the team’s pitching as the reason for the Trolleys’ new lease on the N.L. West — former PhuzzieÂ Randy Wolf (11-6) has been a surprise among the starters (he outdueled Lincecum, and made it look effortless), and always-just-average Hiroki Kuroda has been much more than just average — winning his last two outings to give the Dodgers’ staff a needed lift. But the hero of the Dodgers’ latest resurgence (which comes just in time for the playoffs) isn’t anyone on the field. It’s L.A. General Manager Ned Colletti, who put together a series of trade deadline deals that, in retrospect, look nothing nothing less than brilliant.
Colletti might as well be working with hammers and saws, particularly considering the renovation job he’s done on the L.A. staff. The trade deadline acquisition of Jon Garland has provided a steadying groundball presence for L.A.’s younger pitchers, while beanball retread Vicente Padilla has provided a much-needed up-and-in intimidator for a group of knee shaking younger guys who love the outsideÂ half of the strike zone. Perhaps Colletti’s best decision, however, was the acquisition of former Birdland closerÂ George SherrillÂ (1.70 ERA) whoÂ has become a par excellance set-up manÂ and sometime closer who provides a lights out presence for the L.A. 8th. And that’s not all: the haunting of Washington (Juan Rivera, et. al.) continues with a resurgent Ronnie Belliard, who is hitting the skin off the ball in L.A. Then too, Jim ThomeÂ seems more than comfortable in hisÂ new role as a lefthanded bat off the bench.Â Who would have thunk it. Here we are in September, and Joe Torre’s first place team is being led by a bunch of gamers with enough mileage on their cleats to populate a retirement home. When we should be talking about Manny, we’re talking aboutÂ Jon and Vicente and Ronnie — a passle of veterans who owe theirÂ playoff dreams to a G.M. who knows a bargain when he sees one. The L.A. Dodger’sÂ might be Joe Torre’s team, but they’re also Ned Colletti’s.