For Dodgers, sweep of Cards just a start

ST. LOUIS – It was a civilized gesture amid bedlam. Joe Torre summoned his coaches into a cubbyhole of an office in the visitor's clubhouse at Busch Stadium, handed each of them a flute of champagne and offered a toast.

"We've got a lot more work to do, but …"

… Job well done. Hard work since spring training paid off. Etcetera. Etcetera. All that really mattered was Torre's introductory clause.

The Los Angeles Dodgers had just completed a National League division series sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals with a 5-1 victory Saturday night. In three games they kept Albert Pujols(notes) quiet, defeated Chris Carpenter(notes), survived Adam Wainwright(notes) and made Matt Holliday(notes) blush. But no amount of bubbly could obscure the sober truth: The Dodgers need to reach the World Series to make this season more than seven months of running in place.

"Our main focus this year is getting farther than last year," outfielder Matt Kemp(notes) said. "We’ve still got eight more games to win."

We all know factors beyond a team's control – a fly ball in the lights here, a blown call there – are magnified in the postseason because so many fewer games are played than in the regular season.

We all know role players can become prominent in a short series. Anybody who watched the Dodgers' Vicente Padilla(notes) toss seven scoreless innings Saturday, two days after Ronnie Belliard(notes) and Mark Loretta(notes) came through with key ninth-inning hits, can attest to that.

We all know superstars can become ordinary in October. Anybody who watched Pujols and Holliday bat a combined .227 is aware of that.

But the roulette wheel of October baseball doesn't compute at the gut level in which the Dodgers currently reside. They need a World Series appearance to validate their progress.

A year ago the Dodgers dispatched the Cubs, a powerhouse opponent supposedly on the brink of ending 100 years of World Series futility. But losing the NLCS to the Philadelphia Phillies revealed flaws in the team built by general manager Ned Colletti and driven by Torre. Chad Billingsley(notes) was a long way from being a staff ace, the bullpen needed retooling and a thick coat of green was evident under the blue uniforms of the nucleus of young stars.

So here they are again. Billingsley is still a long way from being an ace. But does it matter when Padilla and others, seemingly picked up at the 99 Cent Store, play like they were acquired at Tiffany?

The bullpen, populated by castoffs (Jeff Weaver(notes)), finds (Ronald Belisario(notes)), steals (George Sherrill(notes)) and homegrown standouts (Jonathan Broxton(notes)), has become a strong point. And the core developed in the Dodgers farm system no longer seems raw. Andre Ethier(notes), Kemp, James Loney(notes) and Russell Martin(notes) have been above-average major leaguers from the day of their debuts. Now they are playoff-tempered, above-average major leaguers.

"They know what it's like to win, and they remember what it felt like to lose to the Phillies in the NLCS," Colletti said. "They appreciate the preciousness of getting to the playoffs and having this opportunity again, the rareness of it."

Even though it's increasingly less rare. The Dodgers have qualified for the postseason in three of Colletti's four seasons for the first time since the mid-1960s, which team sources said will earn the GM a new multi-year contract. But how about this for a graphic reminder of not reaching a World Series since 1988: The Dodgers replay Kirk Gibson's legendary home run on the scoreboard screen every night at Dodger Stadium. Regardless of the score of the game on the field, Vin Scully's voice booms, "In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened," while Gibson pumps his fist and circles the bases.

Colletti addressed the Dodgers after they clinched the NL West title a week ago, reminding them how good it felt to sweep the Cubs and how lousy it felt to lose to the Phillies. As if they needed reminding.

"It's very important to take the next step," Loney said. "We all know that. Most of us lived through it."

Growth is evident in fits and starts. In this series, Ethier grabbed the spotlight, batting .500 with an otherworldly OPS of 1.904. He homered, tripled and doubled Saturday.

The slumping Manny Ramirez(notes) (remember him?) even contributed, hitting two doubles and a single and driving in two runs.

Now the Dodgers rest and wait for the winner of the series between their bane of 2008, the Phillies, and a team they barely fought off to win the West, the Colorado Rockies. The NLCS begins Thursday at Dodger Stadium.

"That year's experience of playoff baseball, you hope it makes a difference this time around," third baseman Casey Blake(notes) said. "Beating the Cardinals the way we did can't be discounted. It was a great accomplishment and our guys should be allowed to party.

"Our ultimate goal is still ahead. It comes up all the time, and I'm sure we'll continue to talk about it until we see who we play next and get after it."