Wed, Jun 23, 2004 - Page 20 News List

As summer begins, Dodgers anticipate success in autumn

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , LOS ANGELES

The circus was leaving town Sunday night and saved its best for last.

San Francisco, first place and the pennant race could wait. It was Eric Gagne against the world, or even worse, the storied New York Yankees.

The bulging crowd of 55,157 at Dodger Stadium inched closer, ready to explode, anxious to unload the skepticism of blown division leads the past two seasons.

Gagne was facing the mightiest of them all, Alex Rodriguez with two outs in the eighth, representing the tying run. A-Rod has led the American League in homers the past three years. One more here and a magical weekend might have been lost.

Gagne blew him away.

"I was on the top step screaming, didn't you see me?" said Jose Lima, the Dodgers' excitable starting pitcher. "I was the first one out there when he did it. That was Eric Gagne out there. That was the Dodgers."

Fans are still screaming. This team had a much different look winning 5-4 and taking two out of three from the best team in baseball than anything they've seen in a while.

What the first-place Dodgers do the next four days with the Giants might be bigger to the overall race. Sunday was about the possibilities, that maybe, just maybe, these two teams could meet again in October.

"This meant a lot because it showed what our potential is," said Shawn Green, who homered in the Dodgers' four-run second inning. "We know we can play this way. We can be one of the top teams."

Although Gagne allowed a ninth-inning homer to Jason Giambi before finishing up his 81st consecutive save, his moment against Rodriguez was just one of many stories the Dodgers took on the postgame flight to San Francisco.

Dave Roberts, standing at his locker in a uniform of red, white, blue and dirt, scored the eventual winning run in the seventh when he doubled to left and kept on running after Hideki Matsui misplayed the ball in left.

The team, including manager Jim Tracy, jumped out of the dugout as Roberts rounded third and headed for home. Third base coach Glenn Hoffman was jumping in the air and waving him around.

In the distance you could see the out-of-town scoreboard: Giants 4, Red Sox 0.

Roberts slid belly first. It wasn't close.

This was the same Roberts whose torn hamstring last year shredded the Dodgers' second-half momentum. It's the same Roberts who tore it again in May. Shortly thereafter, the Dodgers lost eight consecutive games.

In the Dodgers' big second inning, Roberts also was the key, slapping a two-out, two-run single that gave them a 4-0 lead.

"It felt great, being healthy, running all out," Roberts said. "Both plays meant a lot but the second play wound up deciding the game. We need to keep it up and take it to San Francisco."

"There is a great feeling right now," said Lima, the spot starter who pitched six strong innings to raise his record to 6-2.

"It doesn't matter what happened before. This is us now."

So far, this looks much different. Instead of last in runs scored like 2003, the Dodgers are tied for first in team hitting with the St. Louis Cardinals.

The pitching staff is not as strong without Kevin Brown and Paul Quantrill, both Yankees now, but the bullpen still is the best in baseball.

Sunday was the first day of summer. For the first time in a while, it could be worth waiting around for fall.

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