Wednesday October 15th, 2008

LOS ANGELES -- Anyone who happened upon the home clubhouse at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday would have guessed the offseason had already begun. Nobody was playing cards. Nobody was listening to music. Nobody was even there. With the Dodgers trailing the Phillies 3-1 in the National League Championship Series, manager Joe Torre decided to cancel his team's scheduled workout and give them a day off, neglecting to mention that they might be getting a lot of days off in the very near future.

Torre believes it will behoove his players to spend some time away from the ballpark and clear their heads in anticipation of Game 5 at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday night. But he seems to be running out of moves. Giving a team the day off on a non-travel day, especially so close to the end of the season, smacks of desperation. Of course, that doesn't mean it can't ever work. Before Game 3 of the 1986 World Series, Mets manager Davey Johnson canceled a workout at Fenway Park with his team trailing the Red Sox 2-0. Johnson said he passed the time by taking a long nap and eating oysters. The Mets came back to beat the Red Sox in seven games.

The odds facing the Dodgers are just as daunting. In order to win the NLCS they must beat Phillies ace Cole Hamels on Wednesday and then win two games at Citizens Bank Park, where they are 0-6 this season. The Dodgers are countering Hamels with Chad Billingsley, who did not get out of the third inning in Game 2 and alienated teammates when he did not retaliate for pitches from Philadelphia's Brett Myers that knocked down Russell Martin and went behind Manny Ramirez.

After the Dodgers' Hiroki Kuroda threw a pitch that nearly hit Philadelphia's Shane Victorino in the head in Game 3, Ramirez said: "We should have done that while we were there," meaning in Philadelphia. It was a dig at Billingsley, and it was also the first time that Ramirez has caused even the slightest ripple of controversy since arriving in Los Angeles. By canceling Tuesday's workout, Torre was able to shield Billingsley from the inevitable and potentially uncomfortable questions about Game 2.

No matter how the Dodgers feel about Billingsley right now, he is a huge part of their future. Like Martin, James Loney and Matt Kemp, he is young, cheap and homegrown. What separates him from the others, though, is that he pitches. And with Derek Lowe due to become a free agent, and the Dodgers unlikely to pick up the option on Brad Penny's contract, Billingsley will probably be L.A.'s Opening Day starter next season. This outing could have a serious impact on his development, one way or the other.

"He's sensitive," Torre says. "And yet he's very aggressive and very sure of himself. The first time I watched Andy Pettitte prepare for a game, I just happened to be in the training room and he's there staring at the wall and I said, 'Uh-oh, we have no chance here.' And then he goes out on the mound and you just watch this guy deal with it. I've seen that in Chad."

Even if Billingsley can summon his inner Pettitte, the Dodgers will have to hit a pitcher whose changeup has been nearly untouchable in the playoffs. With a Hamels victory the Phillies will not have to play again until next week, in Game 1 of the World Series. Already dressed for a party, outfielder So Taguchi wore a fedora with his batting practice jersey Tuesday. But the crown belonged to Matt Stairs, he of the pinch-hit, two-run, game-winning homer on Monday night. As Stairs walked through the cramped visiting clubhouse, Phillies outfielder Pat Burrell said: "Part the seas. He's walking on water."

Stairs has become an overnight hero in Philadelphia, just as Victorino has become a villain in Los Angeles. A former Dodgers farmhand, Victorino not only got into a shouting match with Kuroda, but also hit the two-run, game-tying homer that set up the blast by Stairs. "Shane's always been a villain in this clubhouse," Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins says with a smile. "Everybody wants to wrestle him. This gives him a chance to woof back."

A year ago the Indians had a 3-1 lead on the Red Sox in the ALCS, but let up and lost the series. Rollins does not believe that will happen to the Phillies, who learned a valuable lesson about the urgency of playoff baseball after being swept by the Rockies in the Division Series last season. "We took it as a five-game series," Rollins says. "We came to an understanding after it was over that you have to win every game. Even when you're winning, you have to fight like you're losing."

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