So it wasn't just rookie Charlie Haeger's knuckleballs that were erratic and unpredictable Saturday, but the unconventional combination resulted in a 2-0 win over the Cubs, with Haeger taking a shutout into the eighth inning, Jonathan Broxton containing the heart of the Cubs' order in the eighth and George Sherrill getting his first Dodgers save by escaping a jam in the ninth.
A monster 449-foot home run over the bullpen by Matt Kemp and one of mere mortal distance by Casey Blake off former Dodgers farmhand Ted Lilly was the all offense the Dodgers could muster, or would need. The Dodgers were wobbly only three days ago, then the Cubs came to town and now everything is good again, with a three-game win streak.
"The thing that is good about winning close games is it is a little reminiscent of how it was early on, playing well in situations where we don't have much wiggle room," manager Joe Torre said. "Everyone who has come out of that bullpen or started [in this series] has been bulletproof. We have been struggled to score runs, but what we've scored has been holding up."
While he no longer has Mariano Rivera to wrap up wins, Torre has the luxury of a pair of closers in Broxton and Sherrill, and he showed the possibilities in this game.
First Haeger, making only his second Major League start of the year and third of his career, had the Cubs baffled, as well as Torre, allowing only three hits while striking out seven.
"He can drive a manager nuts not knowing when to pull the plug," said Torre, who pulled the plug when Haeger walked Sam Fuld leading off the eighth inning. But warming up in the eighth was All-Star Broxton, not Sherrill, and it wasn't a demotion. Torre wanted Broxton to face the heart of the Cubs' order.
"We had an opportunity to save the game in the eighth inning and I just couldn't resist it," Torre said. "Broxton struck out two last night and I basically decided to flip-flop them because of where they were in the lineup. It's a nice situation to have. We're not as concerned about who gets the stat as much as the only stat that's important, the 'W' in the left-hand side. The game dictates what you do, especially when you have options. If we don't have Sherrill, we don't do that."
Broxton struck out the first batter he faced -- Milton Bradley -- and the last -- Kosuke Fukudome. The inning would have been stress-free if Kemp (starting his third game of the year in right field) hadn't lost Derrek Lee's fly ball in the sun, which put runners on second and third with one out. But Broxton got Aramis Ramirez to line out to first baseman Mark Loretta before fanning Fukudome.
Sherrill allowed a one-out single to John Baker and a two-out walk to pinch-hitter Alfonso Soriano before getting pinch-hitter Ryan Theriot on a grounder to third to end it.
Broxton said he had no problem with the early warmup.
"We won, so it doesn't matter," he said. "It was a big part of the game. I take the ball when they tell me to go out there and I don't complain about anything."
Torre said he hadn't explained to Broxton how this kind of scenario might unfold, but he didn't expect his primary closer to mind.
"If somebody gets offended being picked to pitch to the 3-4-5 hitters in the lineup, they're not the people I think they are," he said. "It's a trust situation and I trusted him with the most important inning of the game."
And he not only trusted Haeger with a second start, but there will be at least a third Friday night in Cincinnati. This was Haeger's first Major League win since 2006, but it is in keeping with the Dodgers' unexpected success with a wave of fifth starters this year.
In games started by pitchers other than Chad Billingsley, Clayton Kershaw, Randy Wolf or Hiroki Kuroda, the Dodgers are 20-12. That's a .625 winning percentage, a better result than when the top four start. In addition to Haeger, the fifth starters have been Eric Stults, Jeff Weaver, James McDonald, Eric Milton and Jason Schmidt.
Haeger, his mother and sister having flown in from Michigan for the game, threw 110 pitches, with 95 of them knuckleballs, by his estimation. He said they were dancing better in this game than his tough 3-2 loss to the Cardinals five days earlier, giving the humidity some credit for a better grip. Brad Ausmus caught and there were no wild pitches or passed balls.
Haeger said he picked up the pitch from instructor Chris Sinacori "almost out of desperation" as a 19-year-old struggling in the Chicago White Sox system in 2003. He previously had brief Major League trials with the White Sox and Padres.
"A knuckleballer is a rarity, and when they're throwing strikes and not walking you, it's not the easiest thing in the world to hit because you don't face them all that much," said Cubs manager Lou Piniella. "He did that -- he threw strikes and made us swing the bat."