- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 15, 2009

LOS ANGELES | The Los Angeles Dodgers have been here before, facing the Philadelphia Phillies in the National League Championship Series. Shoot, it has been only 12 months since these same two teams found themselves in this very position, staring each other down for a spot in the Fall Classic.

The Phillies dominated that series from the get-go. They won Games 1 and 2 at Citizens Bank Park and then finished off the Dodgers in Chavez Ravine during a pennant-clinching run that catapulted them all the way to a World Series title.

So as these two NL titans gathered Wednesday amid a rare October Southern California rainstorm and prepared for an even-rarer league championship series rematch, it was appropriate to wonder how much really has changed in the last year. What makes the Dodgers believe the result will be any different this time around?

In a word: experience.

“I think the rest of the guys, last year they grew up a lot,” slugger Manny Ramirez said of his Dodgers teammates. “They got a lot of experience for all the things we went through last year. I think the guys, they’re more ready this time.”

The experience factor, more than anything, seems to leave the Dodgers feeling better about their chances this October. Young players who were perhaps a bit overwhelmed in 2008 - Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp, Clayton Kershaw - are less spooked by the bright lights in 2009. Veterans who have performed in the playoffs before - Ronnie Belliard, Jim Thome - were added to the roster.

“I think experience, mainly, is the big difference,” manager Joe Torre said.

Make no mistake, this is a different Los Angeles club from the one that watched the Phillies clinch the pennant on its turf last fall. That version boasted one of the most feared offensive forces in the game in Ramirez but not much of a supporting cast around him.

As Manny went, so went the Dodgers. Not so much anymore.

“Last year, it was, ‘Oh, if Manny doesn’t hit, we’re not going to win.’ We don’t believe that now,” third base coach Larry Bowa said. “We just believe we’ve got a lineup where somebody can contribute different every day. It’s not like we’re leaning on one guy.”

Proof of that: During the Dodgers’ three-game division series sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals, Ramirez had pedestrian numbers by his lofty standards (four hits, two RBI). The bigger blows came from Ethier (6-for-12, two homers) and Rafael Furcal (6-for-12, two RBI).

Even Los Angeles’ supposed weak link - a starting rotation lacking a dominant ace - is better-positioned to help its team’s cause this time around. Veterans Vicente Padilla and Randy Wolf were brought in to bolster a staff that relied too much on young arms. Their presence, in turn, took pressure off those young arms, allowing 21-year-old lefty Clayton Kershaw to post a 1.77 ERA and a .188 opponents batting average in his final 19 games.

“I think I’ve grown up a lot since last year,” said Kershaw, who will get the ball for Game 1 on Thursday against Philadelphia ace Cole Hamels.

“He’s just mature beyond his years,” third baseman Casey Blake said of Kershaw. “He doesn’t really act like a 21-year-old. He acts like he’s been here for years. That’s the kind of guy you want taking the ball for you.”

Not that the Dodgers’ added experience is enough alone to turn the tables on a Phillies squad that bears plenty of resemblance to last year’s championship roster. This remains a supremely confident bunch, one that has embraced the challenge of repeating as World Series champs, something that hasn’t been done since the New York Yankees of 1998-2000.

“Believe me, we came back here to win,” manager Charlie Manuel said. “I have more determination, probably, than I had last year. That’s how much I want it, and I think I know how much our players want it.”

Besides, if the Phillies show even a hint of complacency, they are quickly reprimanded by one of the most demanding fan bases in America.

“Philadelphia, it’s a tough place to play,” shortstop Jimmy Rollins said. “The fans don’t get satisfied. They don’t let you become content with having a good season and just being world champions one time. They want it again. They want it from every team every single year.”

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