DENVER -- The season might be drawing to a close and the Los Angeles Dodgers might have been far removed from playoff contention, but as veteran left-hander Ted Lilly took the mound at Coors Field on Monday night, he certainly wasn't short on motivation.
It was a chance for Lilly to break a five-start winless streak, and it was a chance for the Dodgers to push their longtime patsies, the Colorado Rockies, to the brink of elimination in both the National League West and wild-card races.
For Lilly, though, the evening was about erasing bad memories. And as he was turning in eight outstanding innings to pitch the Dodgers to a 3-1 victory over the Rockies before 32,085, Lilly was also doing a pretty good job of do-it-yourself exorcism.
Lilly's only previous start this season at this notoriously hitter-friendly ballpark, on Aug. 29, had been an unmitigated disaster. He had given up seven earned runs and nine hits over four innings, and the then-surging Rockies had rolled to an easy win over the fast-fading Dodgers. But that performance by Lilly had been mostly obscured by other things that happened that afternoon, including Manny Ramirez's coming off the bench to pinch hit, taking a called strike on the first pitch, being immediately ejected from the game for arguing the call and then later that day being allowed to go to the Chicago White Sox on a waiver claim.
But while everyone else remembered that day for Manny being Manny one last time, Lilly remembered it for Lilly not being Lilly. Now, he doesn't have to remember it much at all.
"I pitched very poorly, and it kind of bothered me, I guess, for a while," Lilly said. "I was hoping to get another opportunity."
This time, Lilly (9-12) was nothing short of dominating. He did not give up a hit through the first three innings, gave up a solo home run to Carlos Gonzalez with one out in the fourth -- it was Gonzalez's third home run in his first five career at-bats against Lilly -- then pitched around a leadoff double by Todd Helton in the fifth, stranding him at third when Eric Young grounded to short to end the inning.
Lilly, who struck out eight, also struck out Chris Iannetta to end the sixth with a man on second, and Dodgers first baseman James Loney turned a nifty, unassisted double play behind Lilly in the seventh to erase a leadoff single by Helton.
And with that, the fourth-place Dodgers (76-81) left the third-place Rockies with a magic number of one for elimination from the NL West and three for elimination from the wild card.
Lilly said he didn't make any major adjustments from the previous outing at Coors, or to try to get better action on his breaking pitches in the thin, mile-high air.
"You always just try to be more aware of releasing it down in the zone, because there is a tendency [here] for it to stay up," Lilly said. "I don't think it was necessarily all that sharp. I got away with a few hangers, and we were able to get some big outs."
One of them was a strikeout of Gonzalez, probably the leading candidate for the NL Most Valuable Player award, after Dexter Fowler's leadoff single in the sixth. Gonzalez finished 1-for-4, including 1-for-3 against Lilly. He is now 4-for-6 with three homers and four RBIs against him.
Lilly got through eight innings on only 98 pitches, and Dodgers manager Joe Torre said he wanted to go back out for the ninth. But with the Dodgers nursing a two-run lead in the top half, Torre opted for a pinch hitter when Lilly's spot came up. Hong-Chih Kuo retired the Rockies in order in the bottom of the ninth for his 11th save.
Dodgers third baseman Casey Blake, who is enduring one of the worst offensive seasons of his 12 years in the majors, went 3-for-4 with two doubles. He lined a two-out, bases-loaded single off the front of the mound, into the air and into shallow left field to give the Dodgers a 2-0 lead in the first inning, and after leading off the ninth with his second double, he eventually scored a critical insurance run on A.J. Ellis' RBI single.
Blake said he had a conversation before the game with hitting coach and manager-in-waiting Don Mattingly and hitting instructor Jeff Pentland, the gist of which was the importance of not jumping at the ball, and that he then felt great during batting practice.
"It's been tough," Blake said. "I feel like in the past, maybe when my career was a little less established, I would have really, really brooded over it and been kept up night after night and really, really stressed out about it. But I feel like I handle it pretty well now. I'm a pretty streaky hitter, and I just didn't have that many good streaks this year. All in all, I feel like I hit the ball better than what my average (.247) showed. But I just had a couple of really tough stretches, and that doesn't allow you to hit for any average if you go through long stretches like that."
Blake, who turned 37 last month, is signed for next season at $5.25 million, plus a $1.25 million buyout of a $6 million club option for 2012. But given his advanced age and his declining offensive numbers, it is conceivable that he might not be the club's everyday third baseman in 2011, even though he believes strongly that he could still do it.
"Sure, unless Donnie doesn't want me to," Blake said. "I have to help this team in any way possible, and if they want me to be a utility guy or a platoon guy, then whatever. I still feel like I'm an everyday third baseman, and I still feel like I can have a good year for these guys. Until I am notified otherwise, that is what I plan on doing.''
By the numbers
3 -- times this season the Dodgers have beaten Rockies right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez, who was attempting to become the major leagues' fourth 20-game winning on Monday night. Jimenez has lost just eight games all year, with more than half those losses having come against the Dodgers and cellar-dwelling Arizona Diamondbacks, who have beaten him twice.
The Dodgers handed Jimenez his only loss of the first half on May 9 at Dodger Stadium, a 2-0 game in which he was famously outdueled by Clayton Kershaw; and they beat him again on Aug. 27 at Coors Field, scratching out three runs against him in the eighth inning after he shut them out on seven hits through the first seven.
In Jimenez's three losses to the Dodgers, he gave up a total of six runs and 14 hits over 21 innings. He also beat the Dodgers once, on Sept. 17 at Dodger Stadium, in what ironically was his least effective performance against them: he gave up four runs in 6 1/3 innings.
Scene and heard
Torre tried -- but failed -- to deke Rockies manager Jim Tracy into burning a pitcher in the top of the ninth inning.
With Rockies right-hander Matt Belisle in the game, Torre sent left-handed-hitting Jay Gibbons to the plate to hit for Lilly, or at least to pretend that he was going to hit for Lilly. Gibbons, it turns out, has been nursing a right-calf injury and wasn't even available to the Dodgers. Torre was hoping to force Tracy to bring in lefty Joe Beimel to pitch to Gibbons, at which point Torre would have countered with righty-hitting Jamey Carroll.
But Tracy, who might or might not have known of Gibbons' injury, didn't bite. When Tracy never emerged from the dugout, Torre pulled Gibbons back and sent Carroll up against Belisle. Carroll popped up, and Tracy then brought in Beimel to face the switch-hitting Rafael Furcal, who came in batting 45 points lower (.311-.266) from the right side. Furcal singled, but Ryan Theriot lined to second, ending the inning.
Quote of the day
"Sometimes the ball does feel a little different here. Sometimes it feels like it's bigger. Early in the game tonight, it actually felt smaller. ... I could never make [an] accusation because I don't know for sure." -- Lilly on the subject of the humidor the Rockies store game balls in to cut down on their flight in the thin Colorado air. Lilly was asked about Major League Baseball's new edict that umpires must supervise the removal of game balls from the humidor to ensure that the Rockies aren't trying to inject different balls -- i.e., those stored in the humidor versus some that might not have been stored in the humidor -- into the game at different times depending on which team is hitting.
Dodgers right-hander Hiroki Kuroda (11-13, 3.27) makes his penultimate start of the season and possibly his penultimate start in a Dodgers uniform. A potential free agent this winter, he is winless in seven career starts at Coors, with a 6.25 ERA. Rockies left-hander Jeff Francis (4-6, 4.71) hasn't won since July 30. Since then, he has spent a month on the disabled list because of shoulder tendinitis and posted a 5.89 ERA in four starts.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.