Like Bernard "Beanie" Campbell, Vince Vaughn's character in Old School, Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti isn't much of a talker. But as his players danced around the visitor's clubhouse at Busch Stadium and drenched each other with beer and champagne in a frat-house type scene worthy of the hit comedy from 2003, Colletti stood on safe and dry ground outside the door and recalled one of the rare times this season when he had addressed his team. It was on the first day of spring training in Glendale, Ariz., and his message was simple.
"I only talked to them three or four times this year, for 10 minutes total," he said with a towel draped around his neck and alcohol dripping from his face. "I reminded them how good it felt to beat Chicago in this round last year, and how tough it was to lose to Philadelphia in the next round. I said, don't let it overwhelm you, don't let it consume you. But remember it."
How well they've learned their lessons from last year's five-game defeat at the hands of the eventual World Series champions won't be determined until their after the National League Championship Series is over, but in sweeping the Cardinals in the Division Series, the Dodgers showed that they remembered well what it was like to succeed in the postseason, and their sweep of the Cardinals had traces of the same formula they used to rout the Cubs in three games a year ago.
There was another emerging star from their core of homegrown talent -- James Loney a year ago, Andre Ethier this season -- an airtight defense (one error last year, none this year) and stellar pitching, both from their starters (Clayton Kershaw and Vicente Padilla combined to allow just two runs in 13 2/3 innings) and their relievers (1.86 ERA, seven strikeouts and only one walk in 9 2/3 IP). There was even, at long last, Manny Being Manny. With three hits and two RBIs on Saturday, Manny Ramirez looked for the first time like the almost unstoppable force who shredded the Cubs last year, causing Colletti to say, "He looked a lot quicker to the ball. If he gets hot, look out." It was, in short, the very team effort that Colletti has preached to his team and his organization all season.
In particular, Colletti cited the efforts of Ron Rizzi, one of the army of anonymous scouts who made their success possible, saying "Without Ron Rizzi, we don't have this [celebration]." Rizzi goes to Venezuela every year to see what he can find, and this season he came back with righty Ronald Belisario, a 26-year-old who had spent eight seasons in professional baseball with the Marlins and Pirates without ever reaching Triple-A, much less the majors. But on Rizzi's recommendation, the Dodgers signed Belisario to a minor league contract in January. He made all of two appearances in the minors before arriving in the majors for good as a key component of the Dodgers bullpen. His 69 appearances third on the team, and his 2.04 ERA was the best of any reliever. In the playoffs, he faced four batters and got four outs.
Rizzi also suggested the Dodgers acquire Ronnie Belliard from the Nationals during the season even though L.A. already had an All-Star at second base in Orlando Hudson. Belliard wound up starting each of the three games in the series and had as many hits (three) as Albert Pujols. Rizzi also took the lead on George Sherrill, who came over in a trade with the Orioles and emerged as the setup man for closer Jonathan Broxton, posting a 0.65 ERA.
Then there was Padilla, another Rizzi find who was perhaps the riskies move of the bunch. Released in August by the Rangers -- who had grown so tired of his mediocre pitching and personality differences that they had put him on waivers in June -- the Dodgers took a chance on Padilla as their lead in the NL West started melting away. Mindful of the criticisms that had followed him out the door in Texas, where one story in the local press said "the move stems from Padilla not being a good teammate or role model for young players and from his lack of a positive attitude in the clubhouse," Coletti sat him down and told him just what would be expected of him. "I said, this is a fresh start. You'll write the next chapter. Joe [Torre]'s not going to write it, I'm not going to write it. So far, he's penned a pretty nice piece."
Padilla also authored a fitting conclusion to the stunningly one-sided series on Saturday with what was by far his best start of the season. After escaping a bases-loaded jam in the first inning, he retired 16 of the next 17 hitters and never again had more than one runner on base at a time. It was the first time this year he had pitched at least seven innings without giving up a single run. He also kept the Dodgers from having to send a struggling Chad Billingsley out to the mound for Game 4, and gave them a renewed sense of confidence that he can be relied upon even further in the NLCS.
Padilla's performance stood in start contrast to that of Joel Pineiro, his Cardinals counterpart. Pineiro lasted only four innings and gave up four runs, meaning that the vaunted St. Louis pitching staff, hailed as perhaps the best in the game when the series began, delivered just one quality start in this series.
Pineiro wasn't alone in his struggles. The Cards offense managed only six runs and went 5-for-31 with runners in scoring position. Matt Holliday, whose error in Game 2 stands as the most egregious miscue of the series, had just two hits in the three games and Pujols managed only one meaningless RBI, which didn't come until the eighth inning on Saturday, and was so frustrated by the early exit that he left Busch Stadium without talking to reporters.
Even more frustrating for manager Tony La Russa were the mental errors. In Game 3, Yadier Molina took off for third with one out on a ground ball hit in front of him. Dodgers shortstop Rafael Furcal turned that gift into a rally-killing out. It was reminiscent of another baserunning blunder that cost the Cardinals in this series, when in Game 2, Colby Rasmus was thrown out by five feet at third base trying to stretch his go-ahead double into a triple, negating an opportunity for St. Louis to add to its lead.
On Saturday evening, with the clubhouse quiet and the last bottle of alcohol finally drained, Loney was being asked again about his quick-thinking decision to cut off Matt Kemp's relay throw to the plate and nail Rasmus at third. Like Casey Blake's 10-pitch at-bat following Hollidays' error in Game 2 that resulted in a walk, it was exactly the kind of critical if unheralded play that the Dodgers made repeatedly throughout the series, and that the Cardinals didn't. And even though those plays are sure to be overshadowed by Ethier's heroics, Holliday's error and the Dodgers shut-down pitching, it personifies the exact reason why the Cardinals are headed home for the winter and the Dodgers are headed back to the NLCS to see how well they've remembered Colletti's words from eight months ago.
Before Loney could answer, teammates Juan Pierre and James McDonald, standing nearby, interrupted. "Man, we don't want to talk about that, that's old news," said Pierre. Then in unison, the two made a statement as resounding as the one their entire team had just made on the field. "This series," they shouted, "is OVER!"