LOS ANGELES -- If the widely anticipated two-team race between the Dodgers and Colorado Rockies ever materializes in the National League West this season -- it might seem like a dubious proposition right now, but there are almost five months of baseball left -- every head-to-head matchup between the teams will wind up being critical.
And yes, that includes the first one of the season Friday night, a riveting, 6-5 Dodgers victory before 40,567 at Dodger Stadium.
In a game that was reminiscent of last year, when both teams made the playoffs but the Dodgers took the division title based largely on the fact they won 14 of 18 from the Rockies, the Dodgers used an airtight bullpen to shut down the Rockies' potent lineup over the late innings and held on for a one-run win.
With right-hander and de facto staff ace Hiroki Kuroda not at his best, the Dodgers had to go to their pen early.
It started with embattled left-hander George Sherrill, who entered with one out, a one-run lead and runners on second and third in the sixth. And although Sherrill gave up a tying sacrifice fly to Todd Helton -- which, because of one of baseball's odd statistical quirks, resulted in Sherrill's being charged with a blown save -- retiring Helton for the second out of the inning proved to be a key moment in the game and could prove to be a key moment in the season for the struggling Sherrill.
Once Sherrill had retired his lone batter, on came Jeff Weaver, fresh off the 15-day disabled list. He walked Troy Tulowitzki before getting Carlos Gonzalez to ground to second to end the threat. The Dodgers re-took the lead in the bottom of the inning, setting up Weaver for his 100th career victory, and Ramon Troncoso and Jonathan Broxton took care of the rest.
Troncoso pitched around a walk and a freakish infield single in the seventh, then retired the Rockies in order in the eighth. Broxton, who had blown a two-run lead in the ninth against Milwaukee just 24 hours earlier, gave up a leadoff single to Gonzalez at the end of an 11-pitch at-bat, signaling more trouble. But the inning changed dramatically when Russell Martin gunned down Gonzalez by five feet trying to steal second.
If you're scoring at home, that was 3 2/3 shutout innings for a Dodgers bullpen that is now fully intact with the return of Weaver and fully effective if Sherrill's latest apparent turnaround actually sticks.
Getting their once-vaunted pen back in order would be the best sign yet that the Dodgers might be on the verge of turning this season around after getting off to such a horrid start. And taking the series opener from the Rockies at a time when the league's best pitcher, Rockies right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez, is waiting to face them Sunday showed the Dodgers can come through with a victory on those occasions when they need one in the worst possible way.
The Dodgers optioned outfielder Xavier Paul to Triple-A Albuquerque after the game to clear a roster spot for Manny Ramirez, who will be activated from the 15-day disabled list before Saturday night's game with the Rockies. Paul delivered a critical leadoff double to set up a three-run fifth inning for the Dodgers. He leaves with a .276 average in nine games since being recalled when Ramirez was shelved April 23.
After Gonzalez ended an 11-pitch at-bat with a leadoff single to left against Broxton, Martin fired a bullet to Jamey Carroll at second base to nail Gonzalez trying to steal. Suddenly, instead of a runner in scoring position with none out, there was one out and nobody on base, setting the stage for Broxton to blow away the final two hitters.
"I guess the word on the street is that Broxton is kind of slow to the plate," Martin said. "But he has been working on that, and he has gotten a lot quicker. Right there, he gave me enough time. I just came up firing as quickly as I could."
By the numbers
14 -- consecutive games without an RBI by Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp, who finally delivered in a big way, driving in the eventual winning run with a two-out triple in the sixth inning. The hit should have been just a single, but an apparent miscommunication between Dexter Fowler in center and Gonzalez in right resulted in the ball skipping under Fowler's glove and rolling to the wall.
Lost in the shuffle
After going 1-for-22 with five strikeouts over the first seven games of the homestand, Dodgers third baseman Casey Blake broke out not only with two critical hits but also with two critical defensive plays.
Blake led off the second inning, after the Rockies had taken a 1-0 lead in the top half, with a double into the left-field corner and eventually scored the tying run on Carroll's two-out single. In the top of the fifth, with the Dodgers nursing a one-run lead but Rockies runners on second and third and none out, Blake made a spectacular diving catch to his left to rob Helton of what probably would have been a two-run single.
With two outs in the bottom of the fifth, Blake hit a smoking line drive toward second that just ticked off the glove of Clint Barmes and scooted into right field, scoring Andre Ethier from second to give the Dodgers a 4-3 lead. After taking second on a wild pitch, Blake then came home on Martin's single to make it 5-3.
Finally, Blake began the top of the sixth by robbing Barmes of extra bases with another diving play, this time to his right. Blake got up and barely got Barmes at first, a play that would prove critical in an inning in which the Rockies wound up getting three hits and tying the score one last time before the Dodgers went in front for good in the bottom half.
Quote of the day
"Thanks for informing me. I hadn't seen that yet." -- Weaver, to a reporter who remarked that Weaver's 100th career victory came on the same night when his younger brother, Angels pitcher Jered Weaver, flirted with a no-hitter and pitched 7 1/3 scoreless innings at Seattle.
Ramirez will come off the 15-day disabled list and return to the Dodgers' starting lineup. Knuckleballer Charlie Haeger (0-3, 6.56) will make his first start since April 27 for the Dodgers, an assignment he was given after a strong, four-inning relief appearance Tuesday night against Milwaukee. Right-hander Jhoulys Chacin (1-0, 0.00) will start for the Rockies, his second start of the season and third appearance overall. He has given up only one hit in eight innings, and opposing batters are hitting .040 against him.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.