LOS ANGELES -- On an evening when Clayton Kershaw was as outstanding as the Dodgers have to come to expect him to be and Ronald Belisario basically blew away both of the hitters he faced, the biggest out the Dodgers recorded in their 4-1 victory over the San Diego Padres before 38,856 on Thursday night at Dodger Stadium might have come in the ninth inning, when Padres shortstop Everth Cabrera grounded meekly to second.
Cabrera had come to the plate against Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton with a runner on second and one out. More importantly, he had come to the plate against Broxton with Matt Stairs in the on-deck circle, waiting to pinch hit in the pitcher's spot.
With Stairs having signed a one-year, $700,000 free-agent deal with the Padres last winter, the same Padres who appear 18 times on the Dodgers' 2010 schedule, he and Broxton were bound to come face to face sooner or later. The amazing thing was that it took five meetings between the two teams for it to actually happen.
Thanks to Cabrera's failure to get on base, though, the moment was utterly anticlimactic, free of drama or tension of any kind. If Cabrera had reached, Stairs would have represented the tying run. Another moon shot like the one he so famously hit off Broxton in the 2008 National League Championship Series for Philadelphia would have meant a blown save for Broxton, a 4-4 tie and a waste of Kershaw's latest masterpiece, in which he dominated the Padres for 7 1/3 innings. Another shrinking-violet act by Broxton, like the one he so famously pulled when he walked Stairs on four pitches to start a two-run, ninth-inning, game-winning rally for the Phillies in the 2009 N.L. Championship Series, and the bases would have been loaded and the questions would have started all over again.
As it was, Stairs, who lost so much weight as the result of his offseason diet that he does not look nearly as imposing at the plate or nearly as capable of launching one into the stratosphere, stepped into the box against Broxton in an innocuous situation, where the worst he could possibly do was hit a two-run homer to cut the Dodgers' lead to one run.
Still, for a fleeting moment, there was an uncomfortable feeling as Broxton started Stairs off with a ball. Alas, three pitches later, the last one a fastball down and in that Stairs flailed at, the whole thing was over, and so was the game.
With that, Broxton had his eighth save in 10 chances this season and his seventh in a row. And apparently, that is all he had. If Broxton gleaned any special satisfaction from staring down his nemesis and coming out on top this time, albeit on the decidedly less-pressurized stage of a regular-season game in the middle of May, he wasn't about to admit it publicly.
"I'm not worried about that," he said, and that was all he had to offer on the subject.
Although they won't see each other again until late July, there will be many more games between the Dodgers and Padres this season, and presumably, there will be at least a few more Broxton-Stairs matchups. There might even be one with a game on the line, something this one came so tantalizingly close to being but then wasn't.
But if Broxton is telling the truth, if he really isn't worried about any post-traumatic flashbacks when those situations arise, well then, a good portion of the battle is already won.
"We had a talk last year after we lost to Philadelphia," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "The only thing I could say to Broxton was, 'Don't shortchange yourself. Be as proud of your stuff as I am.' I really don't think it would have made a difference [if Cabrera had gotten on], although we'll never know. It's just a matter of him knowing, if nothing else, that what he did before in that situation didn't work."
And so this time, Broxton took a different approach. And this time, it did work.
And if Broxton has anything to say about it, the storyline will end right there.
By the Numbers
.309 -- average for infielder Jamey Carroll in the 22 consecutive games he has started at shortstop since Rafael Furcal hurt his left hamstring in the first game of a doubleheader on April 27. Carroll has played every inning of every one of those games, during which the Dodgers are 15-7 and have climbed from last place in the N.L. West to second, just one game behind the division-leading Padres.
Carroll went 2-for-3 on Thursday night, driving in two of the Dodgers' four runs with a sacrifice fly in the second and a two-out single in the sixth. That hit came with runners at first and second after the Padres had intentionally walked Blake DeWitt to get to Carroll.
With Furcal expected to return from the disabled list by early next week, Carroll will soon be relegated to the utility infielder's role the Dodgers signed him to fill.
"His job is to play off the bench," Torre said. "If we happen to lose somebody or need somebody to play, whether it's an inning or a week, he has the mindset to be that guy. But he has been a huge part of what we have done here since Raffy got hurt."
The Dodgers kick off the interleague portion of their schedule by hosting the Detroit Tigers on Friday night in the opener of a three-game series. L.A. right-hander Chad Billingsley (4-2, 4.03) is 3-2 with a 2.64 ERA in five starts since getting bombed for seven runs in three innings on April 20 in Cincinnati, after which he was called in for a closed-door meeting with Torre and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt. He will be opposed by embattled Tigers lefty Dontrelle Willis (1-1, 4.68), who in seven career starts against the Dodgers is 1-5 with a 6.93 ERA. Dodgers hitters have combined to hit .303 against him in those games.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com