- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 24, 2009

Joe Torre knows a thing or two about on-field celebrations. For goodness’ sake, the guy hasn’t spent an October on the golf course since 1995.

The 69-year-old manager also knows from experience not to celebrate too much upon clinching a playoff berth, certainly not with a veteran-laden ballclub that has been here before and was expected to be here all along.

So as his Los Angeles Dodgers found themselves on the verge of the promised land this week - their magic number to secure a postseason berth remained two after Wednesday night’s loss to the Washington Nationals - Torre wasn’t expecting his players to waste too much energy dog-piling each other in the middle of the diamond or dousing their clubhouse in champagne.

“We’ve certainly been tested, there’s no question,” he said. “But the test isn’t over yet. … You take nothing for granted.”

Indeed, there are loftier expectations in the Dodgers’ clubhouse and across Southern California this fall than a mere division title. Been there, done that. This will be their third trip to the postseason in four years.

No, Los Angeles wants both to reach the World Series for the first time in 21 years and then to win the whole thing, reassuming its stature as one of baseball’s premier franchises after a stretch of near misses.

The Dodgers certainly have positioned themselves well to pull that off. They’ve owned the National League’s best record for all but one day since May 3 and are in line to enter the playoffs with home-field advantage. They were many experts’ preseason pick to win the pennant, and they’ve handled the pressure that accompanies that designation with aplomb.

“You’ve got an X on your chests,” second baseman Orlando Hudson said. “You watch MLB Network and ESPN, and they boost us up a little bit. That fires other teams up. But I’ll tell you what: [Tony] La Russa’s got a great team over there in St. Louis. Philly’s got a great team, and the Phillies beat these guys out last year. It’s definitely going to be a challenge.”

The Dodgers, Cardinals and Phillies are separated by a scant 2 1/2 games, and each boasts a roster loaded with All-Star talent and reliable role players. The Dodgers, though, perhaps have the fewest question marks among the NL contenders.

They have one of the most feared hitters in the sport in Manny Ramirez. They at last have a supporting cast of mashers around him, including budding stars Andre Ethier (31 homers, 103 RBI) and Matt Kemp (25 homers, 97 RBI). They have a five-deep rotation. And they have a stacked bullpen that owns a major league-best 3.11 ERA.

What’s not to like? Well, maybe there are some concerns about the lack of a true No. 1 starter. Then again, 25-year-old Chad Billingsley - the top candidate for such a job - certainly looked like an ace Wednesday in taking a no-hitter into the sixth against the Nationals.

“The only one that we need to get going again is Billingsley,” Torre said Tuesday. “Right now, he just hasn’t had anything good go on for him. The only thing that’s been good is that he’s healthy, which is important. But he really hasn’t had that feel here over the last handful of starts. It’s been a while.”

It’s hard to find fault with the rest of Los Angeles’ rotation, though, especially since the additions of right-handers Jon Garland (3-0, 2.33 ERA in four starts) and Vicente Padilla (3-0, 2.96 ERA in five starts).

Those are only two of a boatload of late-summer acquisitions that have given the Dodgers a much-needed boost down the stretch. Former Nationals infielder Ronnie Belliard (hitting .333 with four homers and 15 RBI in 20 games) has been a godsend. Former Orioles reliever George Sherrill (0.77 ERA in 25 games) has been brilliant.

“We definitely had holes we needed to fill,” Ethier said. “You’ve got to give a lot of credit to management the way we’ve gone out and knew what we had to do and achieved it.”

Throw in veterans Jim Thome, Brad Ausmus and Mark Loretta, and the Dodgers have the look and feel of a confident, accomplished ballclub built to go the distance.

They’ve expected themselves to win since day one. And they aren’t going to be satisfied with just another division title and an early exit come October.

“I knew what this team could do going into spring,” Hudson said. “And we’ve been doing the same thing since the beginning of the year. Nothing has changed.”

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