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LA's pitching key in NLDS vs. St. Louis

LA's pitching key in NLDS vs. Cards

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LOS ANGELES -- If you saw the movie "Major League" and you remember the voodoo-practicing ballplayer Pedro Cerrano, you knew what reliever Ramon Troncoso was building in his locker before Saturday night's Dodgers clinching.

With a miniature Tommy Lasorda Hall of Fame plaque flanked by bobbleheads of Manny Ramirez, Casey Blake and Matt Kemp, Troncoso had constructed a shrine to the baseball gods. It was complete with a random collection of a cigar; a plum and a banana; a packet of chewing tobacco; assorted drink cans; a Jonathan Broxton cowboy boot; and a glass half-full with what could have been dark Caribbean rum -- all gathered to chase away the evil spirits that had kept the magic number stuck on one for a week.

"If we win tonight," said Troncoso, "I'm taking this thing everywhere."

And the Dodgers won, snapping their longest losing streak of the year. In a season of losing Ramirez to a suspension and Opening Day starter Hiroki Kuroda to three different injuries, let Troncoso believe he exorcised the clubhouse of all the negative vibe.

Manager Joe Torre, though, believes October is all about the pitching, especially in the postseason, and particularly against the St. Louis Cardinals' lineup his club will be hosting in the National League Division Series. It starts on Wednesday at 6:37 p.m. PT on TBS at Dodger Stadium, against a Cardinals lineup that was already tough with Albert Pujols, and then added Matt Holliday.

"They beat us five of seven, but we played them close," Torre said. "I have a lot of friends over there. A manager I played for [Red Schoendienst]. Tony [La Russa] and I are friends. They're tough pitching-wise. And since they got Holliday, he's really made a difference in the lineup. So did Mark DeRosa. You can't give anything away. They'll suck it up and take advantage of it. They are well-managed, disciplined. They can distract you with speed and have power in the middle and not just the right-handed hitters. You can't ignore the left-handed hitters."

Considering Torre's emphasis on pitching, he's got some challenges. Kuroda, his best pitcher last postseason, is out of this series with a neck injury. Chad Billingsley, shaking out of a slump, was sent to Arizona for a Monday simulated game against instructional league players before a start vs. St. Louis over the weekend. The fourth starter will be Vicente Padilla or Jon Garland.

The Cardinals, meanwhile, have the leading candidate for the NL MVP (Pujols) and two for the NL Cy Young Award (Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright). The Dodgers don't have a contender for either award.

The Dodgers just won more games than the Cardinals or anybody else in the league. They also led the league in team ERA, were in a dead heat with the Mets for team offense and were fourth in club fielding, ranking ahead of the Cardinals in each category.

"The way to beat the Cardinals is get their starting pitcher out of the game as soon as possible," said Randy Wolf. "With Carpenter and Wainwright, they've got 67 percent of the Cy Young voting. But they are human. They weren't undefeated this year."

No, but the pair only gave the Dodgers five runs in 30 innings this year for a 1.50 ERA.

Wolf just summarized the Dodgers' game strategy all season. When at their best, they were disciplined at the plate, seeking to run up pitch counts of opposing starters and win games late with a talented bullpen headed by Broxton the closer and deepened with the Trade Deadline acquisition of George Sherrill. Those bullpen arms allow Torre to shorten the game as long as the starters keep it close for five or six innings, which helps explain why the manager has a pretty quick hook with those starters.

Offensively last year, the Dodgers were Ramirez's team, and he carried them through three unforgettable months. His absence this year, however, forced his teammates to do their part.

Kemp and Andre Ethier emerged as prime-time hitters, while Blake and James Loney were steady gloves on the corners and productive bats in the middle of the order. Rafael Furcal and Russell Martin were subpar offensively, but not defensively. Orlando Hudson had an All-Star first half, then the late addition of Ronnie Belliard's hot bat again showed how valuable a bench can be when it has veterans like Belliard, Juan Pierre, Brad Ausmus, Mark Loretta and Juan Castro.

All that said, the Dodgers were stuck on a magic number of one through a five-game losing streak during the final week, but Wolf doesn't see that as a negative.

"The past two games [Friday and Saturday] were big for us to show we had that fight and belief we could win," said Wolf. "Maybe it's better that we didn't clinch any earlier, better that we didn't roll right in."

The Dodgers and Cardinals played in two previous postseasons, Los Angeles losing the 1985 NL Championship Series on Jack Clark's infamous Game 6 home run, and in the 2004 NLDS, when Jose Lima pitched the only Dodgers win in a best-of-five series.

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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