LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Dodgers showed up to their own ballpark Friday night because, well, somebody had to be there to play the New York Yankees. Vicente Padilla showed up, too, because nobody was going to pay to watch Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez or Mark Teixeira hit off a tee or against a pitching machine.
But if the script called for Padilla to simply play the straight man on a night when all the pomp and circumstance had everything to do with the visiting team, the veteran right-hander was having none of it. Sure, he wound up stuck with a loss, and so did the Dodgers, 2-1 to the Yankees before a sellout crowd of 56,000 at Dodger Stadium. But on an evening when it felt a little like the World Series at Chavez Ravine, Padilla seemed perfectly suited for such a big stage.
In his second start since returning from an eight-week stint on the disabled list, Padilla held one of the game's most dangerous, most feared lineups to two runs and six hits over seven dazzling innings. He gave up a leadoff double to Rodriguez and a one-out single to Jorge Posada to score Rodriguez in the second, then a solo home run to Rodriguez in the sixth.
And that was it. But against the still-struggling Dodgers, who were basically no match for veteran left-hander and former Cy Young Award winner CC Sabathia, that was about all the Yankees needed.
Padilla hadn't really pitched this way all season, and that was when he was pitching at all. He had given up four runs in a little over five innings at Boston last Saturday, the day he was activated after being sidelined all that time because of a nerve problem at the top of his right forearm, and even before he went on the shelf April 24, he had given up 18 runs in 21 1/3 innings.
But there is something about big games and big occasions that seems to agree with Padilla. He proved that last fall, when, after being signed by the Dodgers on Aug. 20, he wound up in the playoffs for the first time in his 11-year career in the majors. He responded by pitching seven shutout innings in the National League Division Series clincher against St. Louis, then holding the Philadelphia Phillies to a run over 7 1/3 in the only game the Dodgers won in the NL Championship Series.
Padilla did blow up in the final game of that series, but by then, the Dodgers were pretty much beaten anyway.
"I think he rises to the challenge, without a doubt," Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said. "I think he wants to prove, obviously, that he can still compete. We have seen it in a lot of big games, where he goes to a different level."
Alas, Padilla's heroics against the Yankees basically went for naught, as the third-place Dodgers (39-34) lost for the seventh time in their past eight games -- a stretch during which they have been shut out or held to one run four times -- and once again fell four games behind division-leading San Diego in the NL West.
For the most part, Padilla (1-2) really didn't have to work that hard. Other than the double and home run by Rodriguez, only one other Yankees runner got into scoring position, that on a one-out double by Jeter in the third. Jeter advanced when Padilla was called for a balk for accidentally dropping the ball while his foot was on the rubber. But Padilla got Curtis Granderson to pop up to shallow left, so shallow that Jeter wasn't going to try to score even on Manny Ramirez's arm. After Teixeira walked, Padilla struck out Rodriguez.
"[Padilla] elevated his game, especially for it to be just his second outing since coming back from the DL," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "That was a wonderful effort, and if it had come against any other pitcher, we probably would have come out with a better ending."
Indeed, ultimately, it all added up to just another defeat. But with more than half the season still ahead, including a whole lot of games against those NL West opponents that the Dodgers seem to beat up on with such regularity, there is plenty of reason for hope if the Dodgers can count on Padilla to pitch this way, especially in a starting rotation where Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley and Hiroki Kuroda all have taken gigantic steps forward.
Now if Padilla can just pitch this way in those humdrum, weeknight games against non-descript opponents in the heat of July and August, well, it could be a very interesting summer for the Dodgers.
When Padilla hit Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano, the major leagues' leading hitter, with a fastball to the backside in the fourth, the Yankees apparently thought it was intentional. So the next time Padilla came to the plate, with one out in the bottom of the fifth, Sabathia plunked him on the left leg. A visibly angered Padilla walked up the first-base line without incident, but that might have been only because Posada walked up the line with him to make sure nothing happened.
Plate umpire Phil Cuzzi immediately warned Sabathia and both benches. After Rafael Furcal followed by grounding into an inning-ending double play, Sabathia appeared to turn and say something to Padilla on his way off the field. But that appeared to be the end of it, as there were no further incidents in the game.
Cuzzi's decision to warn both benches seemed prudent. It was his judgement in the ninth inning that raised a couple of different sets of eyebrows -- those of Torre and Dodgers first baseman James Loney, whom Cuzzi called out on strikes for the last out against Yankees closer Mariano Rivera.
Rivera began the inning by blowing away Ramirez and Matt Kemp, who has now struck out six times in nine plate appearances over the past two games. But after taking ball one from Rivera, Loney took three more pitches, all of which Cuzzi called strikes.
Loney was so upset after the at-bat that Cuzzi ejected him from a game that already was over -- making Loney the second Dodgers player in three nights to be kicked out of a game after the final out, as Russell Martin was tossed from Wednesday night's loss to the Los Angeles Angels for slamming his helmet to the turf after second-base umpire Jim Reynolds called him out.
"There were a few questionable calls throughout the night," Loney said. "I thought the last pitch was a strike. But there were a few others before that that were questionable."
Torre was a bit more pointed about Cuzzi's performance in his postgame remarks.
"Mariano, I can tell you from experience, doesn't need any help," said Torre, who was Rivera's manager with the Yankees for 14 seasons. "I don't complain about umpires, but I thought that was close to embarrassing. I don't think James had much of a shot."
Quote of the day
"Win more games in the future. That is my advice." -- Loney, good-naturedly, in response to a reporter's question about what the Dodgers need to do to change their luck after losing seven of their past eight games. The answer was perfectly in character for Loney, a happy-go-lucky type who almost never lets anything get to him and whose emotional outburst at the end of the game was extremely rare.
Kuroda (6-5, 3.06) will face the Yankees for the first time in his career. He has given up two runs over his past 19 innings. Veteran right-hander A.J. Burnett (6-6, 4.83) will start for the Yankees. He had success against the Dodgers while with the Florida Marlins, going 3-2 with a 2.45 ERA in seven starts, but he hasn't faced them since Aug. 19, 2005, when he pitched eight shutout innings in a 3-0 Marlins win in Miami.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.