Showdown in mild, mild NL West

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LOS ANGELES -- It is a prerequisite of every pennant race, even in the National League West, that the participating teams spend a great deal of time watching their competition on television. So on Wednesday afternoon, the Dodgers assembled around two TVs in their clubhouse and queued up the St. Louis-Arizona game. After Arizona's Adam Dunn pulled a game-winning double down the right-field line in the bottom of ninth inning, the Diamondbacks mobbed Dunn behind second base, their celebration spilling into the outfield at Bank One Ballpark. One incredulous Dodger supplied his own commentary: "Damn. Did they just make the playoffs?"

The Diamondbacks have led the NL West since the beginning of April, but they have not been able to cinch it. As a result, this weekend, they come to Dodger Stadium with the division title still very much in the balance. The Diamondbacks remain in first place, but their lead over the Dodgers is only one-and-a-half games, hardly the cushion they had in mind one week ago, when the Dodgers left Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix having lost their eighth game in a row and fallen four-and-a-half behind the Diamondbacks. Making matters more difficult, they were about to face Arizona aces Dan Haren and Brandon Webb. "If we lose those games, I don't know if the season is over," said Dodgers relief pitcher Joe Beimel. "But it's a big hole." Understanding the severity of the situation, the Dodgers beat Haren and Webb in the last two games of the series, kicking off a five-game winning streak.

If the Dodgers were in any other division, they could start scheduling tee times for October. But the NL West is a forgiving place. Three years ago, the Padres won this division with a record of 82-80. The NL West seemed to improve in subsequent seasons, but now the Dodgers are 70-70, also thinking championship. As sad as it may seem, a .500 team in the meat of the pennant race, the Dodgers make no apologies. They have overcome potentially season-ending injuries to shortstop Rafael Furcal, second baseman Jeff Kent, Opening Day starter Brad Penny and closer Takashi Saito. Playing in the NL West is one of the few breaks that have gone their way.

"Nobody's really gotten away from us," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "As long as you can see it or feel it or reach it, you never want to lose hope."

For most of the season, Torre judges his team by looking at its record, not its place in the standings. But in September, he reverses course, and looks at standings instead of records. The series this weekend will go a long way towards deciding who winds up atop the West. These are the last three games between the Diamondbacks and the Dodgers, and if the Dodgers can close the gap further, the remaining schedule clearly favors them. They have two series left against San Diego, two against San Francisco and one against Pittsburgh, the dregs of the National League.

The Dodgers entered this season with the most talent in the NL West, but by the end of April, the Diamondbacks were 20-8 and the Dodgers were already five-and-a-half back. Instead of running away with the division, though, the Diamondbacks hung around for a while. They gave the Dodgers chance after chance to creep back into contention, and finally the Dodgers seem to have obliged.

"It feels like nobody wants to take it," Padres relief pitcher Heath Bell said. "Arizona hasn't taken charge. The Dodgers want to take charge, but they haven't, either. Somebody has to step up. It almost feels like they're waiting for Colorado again." Last season, of course, the Rockies emerged from the ashes in September and made it all the way to the World Series. They are now six games behind Arizona, but in the NL West, even they cannot be counted out yet.

It is not that teams in the West aren't trying. The Diamondbacks have traded for Dunn, Tony Clark and most recently David Eckstein. The Dodgers have acquired Manny Ramirez, Casey Blake and most recently Greg Maddux. Ramirez, in particular, has changed the dynamic of the race. Since arriving in Los Angeles, he has batted .407 with 10 home runs in 32 games, reaching base 50 percent of the time and livening up the Dodgers' clubhouse. After Ramirez took batting practice Wednesday, he shouted "Hey ladies, watch out tonight!" Only he seemed to be addressing a group of men.

"It's great for young players to watch him," said Torre, one of the more jarring quotes of the season. "There are a lot of colorful anecdotes, but when it's time to work, it's all business...There was a lot of stuff circulating before he came over here. He wants to show that he is a good teammate."

Ramirez already receives the loudest ovations at Dodger Stadium, and they figure to swell this weekend. Dodgers-Diamondbacks may not remind Ramirez and Torre of classic Red Sox-Yankees duels in Septembers past. The winning percentages, for one thing, are much different. But the stakes, a division title and a spot in the playoffs, are the same.