- The Washington Times - Friday, October 16, 2009

LOS ANGELES — The scenario late Thursday night at Dodger Stadium — a battle of bullpens — should have made the home club overwhelming favorites. If the Los Angeles Dodgers have one thing going for them, it is the majors’ best relief corps. And if the Philadelphia Phillies have one thing going against them, it is the majors’ most unsettling assortment of late-inning arms.

But the enduring images of Game 1 — George Sherrill standing on the mound in disbelief after surrendering a three-run homer, followed by Brad Lidge standing on the same mound accepting congratulations at night’s end — suggested the National League Championship Series may have a few surprises in store for everyone.

The Phillies surely didn’t draw up their 8-6 victory like this. But they’ll surely take a Game 1 victory on the road, made possible by clutch homers from Carlos Ruiz and Raul Ibanez and then a scoreless ninth from Lidge, the man who blew more saves than anyone in baseball during the regular season but now has wrapped up his team’s last three playoff wins.

“The regular season doesn’t mean a whole lot when October rolls around, to be honest,” said Lidge, owner of an 0-8 record and 7.21 ERA during the regular season but unscored upon in three playoff outings over the last week. “We had a rough season. I had a rough season. But once the postseason rolls around, it’s a little different.”

Entrusted to protect a two-run lead at the end of a wild, back-and-forth affair Thursday night, Lidge proved to be a calming influence for the defending World Series champs. He got Casey Blake to ground into a double play and then got Ronnie Belliard to pop out to seal the kind of victory he could not close out only a couple of weeks ago.

“The postseason, once it starts, it’s like whatever happened before that point is irrelevant,” Ibanez said. “It’s done now. It’s like a new start.”

By the end of this one, Philadelphia’s relievers looked more reliable than Los Angeles’ supposedly unbeatable unit. Asked to churn out 4 1/3 innings of quality work after starter Clayton Kershaw was bounced in the fifth, the Dodgers’ bullpen managed to keep the game within striking distance until Sherrill collapsed in startling fashion. The left-handed setup man, who had allowed a total of two runs in 30 appearances with Los Angeles during the regular season, gave up three in a span of three batters via a pair of walks and then a towering home run by Ibanez.

“I think that was a shock for everybody,” Dodgers manager Joe Torre said.

The Ibanez blast put the Phillies up 8-4 in the eighth, a seemingly comfortable lead even for their beleaguered bullpen. Or perhaps not. Ryan Madson entered in the bottom of the inning and promptly served up three straight singles. By the time he finally escaped, the Dodgers had pushed two runs across and drawn back to within two heading into the ninth.

Had Lidge blown this one, the Phillies would have found themselves in a most precarious position, down a game in the series and entrusting their season to the 37-year-old right arm of Pedro Martinez, manager Charlie Manuel’s gutsy choice to start Game 2.

Now Martinez (who hasn’t pitched since Sept. 30) can take the mound with some margin for error, knowing ace Cliff Lee still awaits for Game 3 at Citizens Bank Park.

“Anytime you win on the road the first game, it’s definitely a big win,” Manuel said. “If you win the first one on the road, it definitely sets up tomorrow’s game, and that gives us a chance to really go home looking good.”

For four innings, Game 1 looked like a classic pitchers’ duel between a couple of dynamic young lefties. Both Kershaw and Cole Hamels dominated under the Southern California twilight, with only James Loney’s second-inning solo homer breaking up the monotony.

But once the sun set, each starter crumbled. Kershaw, at 21 the youngest Game 1 starter in LCS history, pitched like a poised veteran early, firing off first-pitch strikes to the first six batters he faced. Once the fifth inning rolled around, he lost all ability to locate the plate. Nineteen of his 33 pitches in that frame were called balls, and three of those turned into wild pitches (more than anyone had ever thrown in one LCS inning and tying the record for any LCS outing of any length).

And when Kershaw did put the ball in the general vicinity of the plate, the Phillies made him pay for it. Ruiz launched a 2-1 fastball at his eyelids into the left-field bleachers for a three-run homer. Ryan Howard added a two-run double down the right-field corner to cap the five-run inning.

“It just kind of got out of hand that inning,” Kershaw said. “The first four innings, I felt great. In the fifth, I just couldn’t make adjustments.”

Handed a suddenly commanding 5-1 lead, Hamels should have been able to go about his business comfortably. Instead, Philadelphia’s young stud fell into immediate trouble and was done in by his usually reliable defense. When Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley couldn’t turn a potential inning-ending double play, the door opened for Manny Ramirez to come up big.

And he did. Ramirez tagged a 2-0 pitch deep to left-center, his record 29th career postseason homer, this one bringing the Dodgers back within a run and the crowd of 56,000 back to life.

There was plenty of baseball yet to be played, though. And by the end of this one, those early fireworks felt like a bit of an afterthought, especially for a Los Angeles club suddenly with its back against the wall.

“I don’t have any worry about my team’s personality at this point in time,” Torre said. “I’m not concerned about that. I mean, tonight was a prize fight. We just came up a little bit short.”

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