LOS ANGELES -- His offense left 16 men on base and went 2-for-15 with runners in scoring position. His defense gave up a gift run by allowing a fly ball to drop between two fielders. His starting pitcher couldn't even give him four innings and yet Joe Torre was all smiles on Wednesday night. The reason, of course, was that -- despite all their bungling that was more befitting of the team that nearly choked away all of their NL West lead rather than the team that rampaged to the best record in the league -- his team won the game. To be sure, these were not the artful Dodgers in Game 1 of the National League Division Series, but they were the victorious Dodgers, and in so doing they have changed more than a few minds about how the rest of this series will play out.
This may have been a National League game, but it had a decidedly American League flavor, from the interminable length (almost four hours) to the ceaseless pitching changes. It's fitting then that it also had all the hallmarks of a Torre-stamped postseason victory, for it looked very similar to the pattern that he copyrighted for a dozen champagne-drenched years 3,000 miles away: Trust your gut, preach patience to your offense, encourage them to think in small bits rather than big blows, rely heavily on your bullpen and don't be afraid to use your closer for more than one inning. The same formula that Torre used to perfection and led to four World Series titles in New York worked nearly as well in Game 1 in Los Angeles.
It began with their approach against Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter, whom they had never beaten before, and against whom they had managed just three runs in 15 innings this season. Yet they already had two runs two batters into the game, and by the fifth inning, their relentless offense had worn Carpenter out and then knocked him out as well. Carpenter labored through 105 pitches, walking four -- his most in three years -- and allowing nine hits. "I thought our guys did a great job of having a plan," said Torre. "Not necessarily making him work, but making him throw the ball over the plate."
"We were trying to get him out of the game," said the Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp, whose two-run homer in the first inning gave Los Angeles the lead for good. "We worked counts."
Indeed, by drawing eight walks, the Dodgers exhibited remarkable plate discipline, but not every Dodger was content to wait. Kemp's blast came on the first pitch of the at-bat, but it served as an early sign that the Dodgers would not be the pushovers so many expected them to be in this series. Asked later whether he was intimidated by facing the man who may very well be on the verge of winning his second NL Cy Young award in his past three healthy seasons, Kemp smiled and said, "I play baseball, too."
If Kemp and the offense felt overshadowed by their mound nemesis, there was one area at least in which Los Angeles appeared to have a decided edge in this series: their stellar relief corps that had been bolstered by the midseason acquisition of George Sherrill from the Orioles. Torre ran out four middle relievers in Game 1 and received stellar performances from each of them. That quartet combined for four innings pitched, allowed only three hits, no walks and struck out three. Only once -- with two outs in the seventh inning -- did they allow two runners to reach base in the same inning, all while trying to protect a narrow lead.
"To me [the key] was just the bullpen," said Torre. "That's our strength. We get to the seventh inning and we feel pretty good about who we have coming in."
Torre didn't wait that long to go to his bullpen. His first call came in the fourth inning when he had Jeff Weaver relieve starter Randy Wolf with the bases loaded in a 3-2 game. Torre admitted afterward that it was far sooner than he would have made a similar move in the regular season, but "Don Zimmer taught me that this postseason stuff is about not being patient and doing what you feel you need to do at the time you need to do it."
During that magical 12-year run in New York, Torre was lauded for his uncanny knack to seemingly push all the right buttons at exactly the right time, and that skill does not seem to have deserted him even as he changed leagues. First, he started Ronnie Belliard over All-Star Orlando Hudson at second to have more range defensively, and it was Belliard who made the game's key defensive play in the first inning, ranging up the middle to turn a hard smash by Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina that had been deflected by Wolf into an inning-ending double play. Then in the fourth, Weaver came on to get Ryan Ludwick to bounce harmlessly back to the mound. In the bottom of the fifth, he decided to send up Juan Pierre rather than Jim Thome, choosing to play for a single run rather than a big inning. That decision paid off twice, as Pierre's sacrifice bunt keyed a crucial run that upped their lead to 4-2, and Thome was available later in the game to pinch-hit with the bases loaded, although he did strike out.
It was the rare move that did not come through for Torre, who has more gut moves planned for the rest of the series, including putting Hudson back in the lineup in Game 2, and starting Vicente Padilla in Game 3 and Chad Billingsley in Game 4. Despite having home-field advantage, the Dodgers entered the series as decided underdogs after they went just 2-5 against St. Louis during the regular season. Yet as they enter Game 2 against another Cy Young contender, this time Adam Wainwright, they have neutralized one-half of the Cardinals vaunted starting pitcher tandem, and seized control of the series.
"We wanted to make a statement," said Kemp. "Everybody's saying we're the underdogs, but we have confidence that we're a great team. Everything all-around, we're good at and hopefully we made a statement tonight."