It's Gut-Check Time for the Dodgers

The Dodgers, once out of the race, then once well in front of Arizona, have come to the special place and time that all pennant winners and pennant pretenders eventually reach -- the final week of the season. Although they are three games in front (after the Diamondbacks Lost) nothing is going to come easy from here on out.

Baseball history is rife with teams that have led, sometimes by huge margins, into the final games only to find they have lost the ability to throw strikes or to hit the baseball.

Some will call it choking, but you'll never hear that from a player. And the occurrence is rare.

Some call it momentum, or lack thereof.

Colorado ran roughshod over the National League in both the regular season and the post-season last year, then were thumped four in a row by the Red Sox.

The 1951 Dodgers held a 14 1/2 game over the Giants in mid-August but had to fight to maintain a tie, then lost two games to one in the N.L. playoff on a home run by Bobby Thomson.

It say here that these teams didn't choke. Pressure is an every-day thing with major league players. Watch the television closeups of pitchers and seem them take deep breaths between every pitch. They know that a prolonged bad spell could result in a trip back to the minors.

And, like Andy LaRoche, who was the anointed third base prospect in spring training, then sustained an injury, they might never get a prolonged chance to prove themselves again, and will be shunted off to another club.

Alvin Dark, who played in a bowl game with LSU and in a World Series, was in a pro-game tournament alongside Arnold Palmer. On the first green, Dark said the pressure overwhelmed him and he couldn't pull his putter back until after he stepped away from the ball to compose himself.

Every player experiences pressure and some handle it better than others. But when it is your first time in the pressure-cooker it must be overwhelming. But last night the Dodgers seemed to have no trouble.

Casey Blake has one hit in his past 22 at-bats, striking out nine times over that stretch. James Loney has two hits in his past 19 at-bats with six strikeouts.

When these things happen in the middle of the season, it is just a slight slump. When they happen in the final week of a tight pennant race, the memory lingers with you forever.

Arizona has righted their ship and are charging down the stretch, winning seven of nine. It is easier if you are behind, the expectations are not as great and if you don't quite make it, the media expounds on the gallant effort. And if you do upset the leader, you are proudly proclaimed a "spoiler."

The same media isn't nearly as gentle on the leader who is overtaken at the finish line.

It's just another drama playing out alongside the regular contest itself and while it may be painful to watch at times, it's all part of the game.

Guerrero Passes Bench
Outfielder Pedro Guerrero just passed Johnny Bench with his 390th home run and is tied with Graig Nettle in 49th place all-time.

Do you remember the old song, "This Nearly Was Mine"? Frank McCourt must humm that now and again when he remembers. Consider what Guerrero's bat would have meant in the Dodgers' lineup all these years.

When Guerrero became a free agent, he nearly signed with the Dodgers. McCourt was just in the process of buying the team, with the rest of the old-boys network puffing their cigars and mulling over if they wanted him in their exclusive club.

Before the sale was voted upon, McCourt asked Commissioner Bud Selig that if he signed Guerrero would it be detrimental to his purchasing the club. Bud told him, "I cannot guarantee it would be approved."

McCourt, naturally, backed off the sale and Pedro moved on to the Angels. And, as they say in old movies, the rest is history.

Look Who's Coming to Vegas
With their 31-year relationship with the Syracuse Chiefs at an end, the Toronto Jays' top minor-league affiliate, for at least the next two years, will set up house in Las Vegas of the Pacific Coast League.

The Dodgers recently moved out of Vegas and back into Albuquerque.

The move is a relationship arrived at by default and rather reluctantly – by both sides. You don't even have to read between the lines in comments during the official announcement.

"It is what it is," said Las Vegas president Don Logan. "Obviously there are a lot more Dodgers fans here than Blue Jay fans ... but we're going to try to do some more things promotionally and we want to grow the business.

Quote of the Day
Bill Dwyer, writing in the Los Angeles Times, has this to say about the Dodgers and their struggle to win the N.L. West.

"The best team in baseball isn't even the biggest story in its own city. Right now, Los Angeles is all caught up in the Dodgers' magic number and only casually interested in the Angels' magic team.

"The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim adopted a city, and the city it adopted mostly shrugs in return.

"We are all Dodgers, all the time, 24/7 Blue Heaven. What if they were a really good team? What if they win another playoff game? Will we offer our firstborn in celebration?

"If Kirk Gibson limped onto a theater stage in Los Angeles, clenched his fist and pumped his right arm backward, 97% of the people in the room would quickly tell you where they were that night. If Torii Hunter did the same thing, 97% would ask who he was and why was he limping.

"The years of masterful fan-base building by the O'Malleys, the years of Tommy Lasorda constantly equating the prospects of our afterlife to our loyalty for his baseball team, and the branding and marketing recovery Frank McCourt has made after Fox screwed everything up for several years have kept the Dodgers in our frontal lobes.

"The days ahead will be exciting. All eyes will be on the Dodgers, as clinching time approaches. The headlines will get bigger, the news broadcasts louder. Those who get paid handsomely these days to count website hits will do so joyously, because Dodgers buzz always drives Internet clatter.

"It is late September, almost always Dodgers time here. All eyes will be focused on Chavez Ravine. In this city, the Dodgers will have it all.

"Except the better team."