NL West foes part ways for stretch run

NL West foes part ways for stretch

LOS ANGELES -- A line drive to end a critical ballgame snared by a first baseman who had just been moved across the infield an inning earlier in a quadruple switch. In the Magical Mystery Tour that is Major League Baseball, when you're hot, you're hot, and when you're not, you're not.

It was Nomar Garciaparra who made the diving play, reaching across his body on a shot off the bat of Diamondbacks left fielder Conor Jackson that could have scored both baserunners to tie the game.

"That's certainly luck," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said after the 5-3 victory Sunday at Dodger Stadium. "Again, James [Loney] could have caught the ball, too, because his glove is on the other [right] hand, and he's closer to it. But I don't want to redo that."

The Diamondbacks probably would like to redo the last nine days. After defeating the Dodgers in Phoenix on Aug. 29, they led the National League West by 4 1/2 games. The 73-70 Dodgers have won eight in a row since then -- including a three-game sweep of the D-backs -- to pick up six games in the standings.

They lead the 71-71 Diamondbacks by 1 1/2 games and the defending NL champion Rockies by 6 1/2 with exactly three weeks left to play.

The Dodgers and D-backs are now finished head-to-head for the 2008 regular season, with the Dodgers holding a 10-8 edge. Los Angeles won the last five in a row over Arizona by a combined score of 33-8.

"You can say bounces haven't gone our way and they had a few jam-shot hits," said D-backs manager Bob Melvin about a team that came into the series with a 1 1/2-game lead. "But when you're going good, those things don't happen. That's baseball. You try not to think about it, but you can't help noticing it sometimes. There are no excuses. They outplayed us."

With 19 games to play, the Dodgers have the far easier schedule, considering they face the last-place Padres six more times, including a three-game set beginning on Monday night at PETCO Park.

They also have three games next weekend at Colorado, followed by four at Pittsburgh. Their last 10 days of the season looks like this: hosting the Giants for three and the Padres for three, followed by a three-game series at San Francisco.

It's the first time all season the Dodgers have spent two days in a row alone in first, and Torre said that's a good place to be.

"Now you control your own destiny," Torre said. "If you win enough games, then you're going to stay in first place. You don't need to look around for help. You don't need to look at the scoreboard. If you win your share you're going to finish in first place. What that share is you don't know. And if you don't win, there's nobody to blame but yourself."

The D-backs have 20 games left -- six of them against the Rockies and seven against the Giants. They open a three-gamer on Monday night at AT&T Park and after their last off-day on Thursday, play on each of the final 17 days of the season.

Beginning on Friday, they're home for three games against the Reds and then four more against the Giants. Their last 10 days look like this: three at Denver, four at St. Louis and a season-closing three-game set at Chase Field against the Rockies.

The D-backs are on a downhill slide, having lost 10 of their last 13, and Melvin, whose pregame meeting went for naught on Sunday, has to find a way to staunch the bleeding. Until Saturday, the D-backs had spent every day since April 6 in first place.

"We just have to keep playing, got to keep playing," Melvin said. "We did show some resolve today, which was a lot better than the first two games. I think we just keep playing hard. When it's all said and done, you total 'em up and you see where you're at in the standings. But every game is a must game for us from here on in. That's the way you have to look at it."

Whether the 67-77 Rockies can climb back into it or not, they will certainly be a factor, considering that nine of their last 18 games are against the Dodgers and D-backs. They are 2-10 against Arizona and 7-8 against Los Angeles, 3-3 at Coors Field, which Torre considers "a very tough place to play, no matter what."

Last season on Sept. 15, the Rox were four games out and losers of three in a row. They won 15 of their last 16 games, including a one-game playoff for the NL Wild Card spot over the Padres to make the playoffs.

Only the inconsistent play of the division leaders has kept them close this year, but Rockies manager Clint Hurdle certainly isn't ready to cash it in. As 2007 proved, he has good reason. The big difference this year is that the NL Wild Card winner will not come out of the West. So it's the division title or bust.

"We are still battling," Hurdle said on Sunday. "This is good for everybody involved, for focus, for experience. I hate to use the word gut check, because everybody's bringing what they can every day. But as far as dealing with the challenge and not getting overcome by the moment, there's nothing like this type of experience -- to be tested by fire -- to make you better in the long run."

The Dodgers have certainly been tested. They were on an eight-game losing streak after that 9-3 loss at Arizona nine days ago, a game in which Garciaparra, playing shortstop, made two critical errors. That night, second baseman Jeff Kent came out with a sore knee. He later went on the disabled list and had surgery. The next day, Torre benched Garciaparra.

"I think we just bottomed out," Torre said.

The Dodgers have now negated the eight-game losing streak and have done it with journeyman Angel Berroa at short and rookie Blake DeWitt at second. It wasn't by design, but because of the wear and tear suffered by Garciaparra and Kent, the middle of the infield has been much more mobile.

Kent may be back before the regular season ends. And Garciaparra, who was sent into the game at third base on Sunday in the seventh and moved to first in the eighth, is obviously still capable of making the key play when occasionally spotted.

"I took Nomar out because it just looked like we had pushed him a little too far," Torre said. "He was needing some time off. We slid Berroa in there, and he solidified our defense. We were a little reluctant to commit to DeWitt [at second base] because he didn't look very comfortable. We didn't want to fire him out there in a pennant race, and all of a sudden, we had to. We got lucky."

Melvin is hoping that a little bit of that luck changes hands.

On Sunday, the game seemed over with Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton in command, two men out in the ninth and nobody on base. A double and a walk later, the Diamondbacks were thwarted by Garciaparra and the hand of the baseball gods.

But there are three weeks to go. There's plenty of time for the momentum to switch again, and even once again after that.

"There's no question about it," Melvin said. "Look at how quickly it turned around for [the Dodgers]. All it takes sometimes is one game, one game to get some confidence and enthusiasm back."

Barry M. Bloom is a national writer for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.