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Thursday, August 26, 2010
Dodgers suddenly contenders

By Tony Jackson
ESPNLosAngeles.com

MILWAUKEE -- Rumors of the Los Angeles Dodgers' demise might have been greatly exaggerated, and it might no longer make sense for the Dodgers to move Manny Ramirez.

We should know more on the Manny front by late Friday, when the veteran left fielder is due to clear waivers, assuming no one claims him. But what was clear following the Dodgers' third consecutive victory on Thursday, 7-1 over the Milwaukee Brewers before 32,333 at Miller Park to complete the Dodgers' first series sweep in almost two months, is that the landscape looks radically different from just a few days ago.

As recently as Sunday evening, the Dodgers sat eight games back in the race for the National League wild card, which at this point is their only realistic way into the playoffs. Although there still are four teams ahead of them, the Dodgers now are just five back in the wild card, having made up the maximum amount of ground the schedule would allow them to over the past four days.

Manny Ramirez
Just a day ago, Manny Ramirez was on his way out of L.A. But with the Dodgers back in the hunt, it might not make sense to move him.

Suddenly, this team that was presumed dead has a heartbeat. Suddenly, this team that seemed to have no offense has scored 17 runs in three games. Suddenly, this bullpen that had appeared on the verge of a collective collapse has gotten back to the business of shortening games, Dodgers relievers having combined to shut out the Brewers on two hits over 9 2/3 innings in the first three games of this critical trip.

That trip continues Friday night in Colorado, against the team immediately ahead of the Dodgers in both the wild card and NL West standings, and Cy Young Award front-runner Ubaldo Jimenez awaits the Dodgers (66-62) in the opener. Whether the Dodgers will go into that series with or without Ramirez -- who for all his lack of power this season still is hitting .313 with a .407 on-base percentage -- probably won't be known until shortly before game time.

But when asked about the Ramirez situation in a service tunnel outside the team's clubhouse after Thursday's game, Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said, "We're five games out in the wild card." Asked to clarify, Colletti simply said, "I'm not telling you what I'm going to do [about Ramirez]."

The Dodgers have dug themselves a hole that will be difficult to climb out of, and even if they stay relatively hot the rest of the season, the odds are stacked against their making the playoffs. But even the possibility that they can play well enough to stay in the hunt and at least make things interesting at the end might be enough to dissuade Colletti from letting Ramirez go.

"It's still not out of reach," Dodgers reliever George Sherrill said. "That makes it more exciting to come to the park every day. If somebody said when we were eight back that all we had to do was win a few games in a row and see what happens, that was true, but when you say it, it still doesn't sound too good. But a few days later, you have rattled off a few games and you're starting to get back in it.

"So let's see what happens."

Throughout the Dodgers' second-half struggles, manager Joe Torre has repeated the mantra that the team can't be looking at the standings until it runs off a winning streak. On the heels of this three-game winning streak, the Dodgers' first of that length in more than two weeks, Torre seemed to acknowledge that it might be time to get a feel for their surroundings.

"We have said all along that we need to put something together and then see where we are," Torre said. "Coming out of this series against a good club, and especially one that hits as well as [the Brewers] do, to play as well as we did, if that doesn't give us confidence, I don't know what the heck is going to do it.

"I feel good with where we are right now. We probably can take a peek [at the standings], but we just need to keep playing the way we're playing."

Trends

Since the end of the previous road trip, when the Dodgers infamously blew big ninth-inning leads in both Philadelphia and Atlanta on their way to losing five of seven, the bullpen has posted a collective 1.85 ERA in nine games, allowing five earned runs over 24 1/3 innings.

Sherrill attributes the sudden resurgence to the bullpen finally catching up with the rotation, which turned itself around several weeks before.

"Nothing against the starters, but I think the overuse there for a while got to everybody, really," Sherrill said. "But the starters hit their stride and started giving us more innings, and we were kind of able to mix and match for a couple of weeks there. It was a good chance for all of us to catch our breath and be able to relax and take a whole day off here and there and come back out when they needed us."

Sherrill, who was so bad for so long earlier in the season that he lost his setup job and was placed on waivers in July -- a point in the season when it's actually newsworthy for a player to be placed on waivers -- continued his own turnaround Thursday.

When rookie starter Carlos Monasterios failed yet again to get through the requisite five innings for a starting pitcher to qualify for a win -- he was lifted after walking opposing pitcher Yovani Gallardo and then hitting the next two batters, loading the bases with one out in the bottom of the fifth -- Torre brought in right-hander Ronald Belisario, who struck out Ryan Braun. Torre then brought in the left-handed Sherrill to pitch to the lefty-hitting Prince Fielder, who promptly hit into a fielder's choice, preserving the Dodgers' 2-1 lead.

By virtue of getting what probably was the biggest out of the game, Belisario (2-1) was awarded the victory by scorer's discretion even though he faced one batter.

Rookie Kenley Jansen then came on to retire six of the seven batters he faced in the sixth and seventh, giving up only a leadoff walk to Jonathan Lucroy in the seventh, as the Dodgers pushed their lead to 7-1. Octavio Dotel struck out all three batters he faced in the eighth.

Jeff Weaver, pitching for the first time since being activated from the 15-day disabled list Sunday, retired the Brewers in order in the ninth.

Jansen, by the way, shaved his ERA to 0.77 since his first big league call-up July 23.

By the Numbers

760 -- days between three-hit games for Dodgers catcher Brad Ausmus, the three-time Gold Glove winner who is retiring after the season. Ausmus went 3-for-4 with three singles, his first three-hit game since he went 4-for-4 for the Houston Astros on July 27, 2008, also against the Brewers at Miller Park.

Footnote

Dodgers right fielder Andre Ethier was ejected from a game for the first time in his career in the top of the sixth inning. Clearly displeased after being called out on strikes by plate umpire Adrian Johnson, Ethier calmly voiced his opinion to Johnson for several seconds before returning to the dugout. But apparently, Ethier, who was standing on the top step and leaning over the railing, continued to yell at Johnson from the dugout. Shortly after Matt Kemp followed by striking out swinging, and as James Loney stepped into the box, Johnson threw Ethier out of the game.

Ethier then ran out of the dugout and had an animated discussion with Johnson before Torre and crew chief Tim McClelland, who was working first base, stepped in.

Torre said he will discuss the matter with Ethier.

"He earned getting thrown out, let me put it that way, which is not the right thing to do in that situation," Torre said. "It will be addressed."

Looking Ahead

In the opener of a three-game series that is critical to the playoff hopes of both teams, Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw (11-8, 3.07) and Rockies right-hander Jimenez (17-4, 2.66) will square off at Coors Field in the rematch of a pivotal game at Dodger Stadium on May 9. Kershaw pitched eight shutout innings that afternoon, holding the Rockies to two hits and striking out nine batters. Jimenez gave up a run on two hits over seven innings but was tagged with his first loss of the season and only loss of the first half. He wouldn't lose again until July 24, but since then, Jimenez has lost three of his past six starts.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.