LOS ANGELES – Joe Torre hadn't been an underdog for 13 years.
The Dodgers clearly were more comfortable playing it that way, however, as though Manny Ramirez(notes) were still doing his time and they were eagerly and resourcefully grinding out their days without him. And winning.
So, in a move that simply confirms Torre's genius, he gently guided them back to a place of fumbling insecurity.
The man is brilliant, a fact never more evident than in a champagne-sprayed clubhouse at Dodger Stadium on Saturday night, the Dodgers 5-0 winners over the Rockies and hardly-any-room-to-spare champions of the NL West.
No longer do they carry themselves as though each misstep will be covered by a Manny line drive, a Manny home run, a Manny one-liner. No longer do they walk the walks of the heavy favorites, the dominant ballclub that scored at will, that mowed down opposing lineups, that cut relentlessly through an overmatched National League.
Remember that team? A little? Yeah, it wasn't going to work. Torre knew it. That team won every day, or thereabouts. That team was dangerously efficient and confident, so vulnerable in the playoffs. Those teams hardly ever go to the World Series. Underdogs do. Big underdogs.
The Rays went to the World Series last year. The Rockies the year before that. The 83-win Cardinals won it in '06. This was the decade of the White Sox after 88 years and the Red Sox after 86 years and the Angels after 41 years. The Marlins won and so did the Diamondbacks.
The playoffs are much safer for the underdogs nowadays. Ask any Steinbrenner.
Torre isn't blind to these things. He has labeled the best-of-five division series "a crapshoot." They're only a crapshoot, though, for the heavy favorites. For everyone else, they're opportunity.
So, he had Manny lunge and over-swing and sing happy songs in the face of his failures. He had Casey Blake(notes) grab a hamstring. He shut down Andre Ethier(notes). He had Rafael Furcal(notes) and Orlando Hudson(notes) tank. Juan Pierre(notes) he had bat .300, just to mess with people.
And as summer turned to fall, his plan worked perfectly. They have become the little engine. Even the payroll looked the part. Yes, it is almost $109 million, which might appear somewhat large market-like. But, take away Pierre and Jason Schmidt(notes) and the contract parts Manny didn't really deserve, and you're at about $64 million. Lower than the Twins! Technically, then, the Dodgers are this year's Rays, which is just how Torre would have it, and exactly how he began this run of 14 playoff berths in 14 years, with a young and eager club that had never really done it before.
See, it's a mindset.
They'd advanced to the NLCS a season ago. They'd grown into an NL juggernaut. Then they'd lead the NL West by a staggering 9½ games in the first week of June. There'd be no stopping them.
Except they didn't need that headache. That pressure. And when all that stumbling around still had them poised to clinch the division with a week remaining in the season and a three-run, ninth-inning lead against the Pirates, the closer, Jonathan Broxton(notes), blew every bit of it.
They lost that day and four more after that, bringing the Rockies those final few inches, from 15½ back in June to one back in October. You marvel at the precision of the plan.
And then in a full ballpark, in front of people who acted as if the past week had not happened, the Dodgers sprawled expertly over the finish line.
So as not to arouse any suspicion, they clinched Saturday night with key run-scoring hits from Ronnie Belliard(notes), Mark Loretta(notes) and Pierre. Manny, meanwhile, continued to play on as the struggling, steroid-sapped, uncertain slugger, breaking land-speed records to 0-and-2.
Onto them, the Red Sox, wild cards again in the American League, lost six in a row down the stretch. The Phillies lost eight of 12. Most convincing of all, the Cardinals went belly up themselves, losing 13 of 20. But Torre and the Dodgers kept coming, relentlessly mediocre, until the seventh inning of game 161.
"We struggled a little bit," Matt Kemp(notes) said, keeping up the ruse. "But, we fought through the hard times. Now we're going to try to show everybody this wasn't a fluke and that we've got a real good team."
Afterward, they dumped beer and sparkling drinks on each other. When they ran out of that, they dumped the contents of the ice buckets on each other. They'd won the division and drawn almost no attention to themselves, other than for nearly blowing it. They'd shown vulnerability, setting the trap.
"They show up," Torre said of his little underdogs. "Whether they won tonight or lost tomorrow, they would have shown up, they would show up for the playoffs on Wednesday. It's what they have done all day."
Then Torre grinned. And it looked like he winked. Yup, all part of the plan.