The Los Angeles Dodgers, who have been struggling all year with their defense and hitting, won the National League West last weekend like a guy trying to roller-skate through a corner lot of knee-high grass. You kept wondering if he'd ever make the sidewalk.
Only a few days before, the Philadelphia Phillies nailed down the N.L. East by beating the Chicago Cubs. Back on July 18, however, the skeptics wondered what General Manager Paul Owens was doing by firing field manager Pat Corrales with the team in first place. But Owens apparently found just the man for the job - himself!
With this as a background, along with a lot more untold weird happenings, the best-of-five National League playoffs open tonight in Los Angeles. The Dodgers finished the 1983 season with a won-lost record of 91-71; the Phillies with a mark of 90-72.
Game No. 2 will also be played on Wednesday at Dodger Stadium before the series shifts to Philadelphia (after a travel day) for more encounters on Friday and, if necessary, Saturday and Sunday. The pitching rotation for the first three games, barring any unforeseen changes, will have Jerry Reuss, Fernando Valenzuela, and Bob Welch working for the Dodgers; Steve Carlton, John Denny, and rookie Charlie Hudson for the Phillies.
During the regular season Los Angeles won 11 of the 12 games played between the two clubs (five were Dodger shutouts), but perhaps offsetting this statistic is the fact that the Phillies finished the season by winning 23 of their last 31 games. And even though L. A.'s pitching staff had an unbelievable earned-run average of 1.00 against Philly, the playoffs are a different season.
Philadelphia is a team which settled its problems late and didn't really become overly aggressive until Sept. 5, when third baseman Mike Schmidt popped off by saying publicly that the team was confused and had no set lineup or sense of direction. You didn't have to be a member of Scotland Yard to know that he was talking about his manager.
Owens's reaction to these statements was to lash back at Schmidt for thinking too much instead of relying on the natural ability that has twice made Mike the National League's Most Valuable Player. The feeling here is that both Schmidt and Owens were not far off the target with their remarks.
Anyway, at the time Schmidt dropped his verbal bomb, the Phillies were only two games over .500 and trailed both Pittsburgh and Montreal in the East Division. Almost immediately Mike went into a power surge that gave him the league lead in home runs, while the team responded by winning 19 of its next 23 games and the division title.
Before the season began, some wondered if the Phillies would be baseball's Over-the-Hill Gang, with Steve Carlton (38), reliever Ron Reed (40), second baseman Joe Morgan (40), reserve infielder Tony Perez (41), and first baseman Pete Rose (42) all on the roster. But this is an experienced group that could become dangerous during the playoffs.
Either Carlton, who won his 300th game recently, or John Denny, a strong Cy Young Award candidate, probably will have to win at least two games in this series for the Phillies to beat the Dodgers. Philadelphia also has to hope that Schmidt continues his heavy hitting; Rose returns to the groove that allows him to spray hits to all fields; and that Morgan, who celebrated his 40th birthday with two home runs, has an encore to his September heroics.
The Dodgers were able to win the West this year for two reasons: the best pitching staff in the National League, plus Atlanta's late-season loss of slugger Bob Horner that reduced their power bank to a Christmas Club check, with only Dale Murphy to handle slugging chores. Defensively, Los Angeles made 167 errors as a team this season, while numerous other bobbles were called hits by compassionate Dodger Stadium scorekeepers. If the Russians had played defense at Stalingrad the way the Dodger infield did this season, there would be a German flag flying over the Kremlin.
Steve Sax, 1982 N.L. Rookie of the Year, committed 30 errors, mostly on routine throws to first base in which he seemed to freeze for just an instant before releasing the ball. Third baseman Pedro Guerrero (31 errors), who moved in from right field to replace the traded Ron Cey, probably needs to take piano lessons to develop his finger coordination. Guerrero seems to get to most balls in plenty of time, but picking them up or getting them out of his glove in time to throw often becomes an adventure.
There is a partial excuse for shortstop Bill Russell (21 errors), who has been handicapped all season by an injured finger on his throwing hand that affects his control. But there is no way to explain away Russell's occasional lapses of concentration on routine ground balls.
The Dodgers, after the departures of veterans Steve Garvey and Cey, had two rookies in their starting lineup this year in first baseman Greg Brock and right fielder Mike Marshall. Despite their occasional struggles, they combined to drive in 131 runs. Another rookie L. A. came to rely on was catcher Jack Fimple , who took over after veterans Mike Scioscia and Steve Yeager were injured.
The best explanation I heard all year of why the Dodgers win despite their shortcomings in the field came from Atlanta Manager Joe Torre.
A writer was telling Torre he couldn't understand how a team that consistently made so many mistakes in the field could possibly hope to finish first in its division.
''Great pitching - and the Dodgers have great pitching - can overcome anything,'' Torre said. ''I know the Dodgers have been making a lot of errors, and those errors have hurt them. But if you can consistently limit your opponents to two or three runs a game, the way they often do, you can win without a lot of hitting or defense.''
During the late-season stretch in which Los Angeles came from 51/2 games behind the Braves to 31/2 in front, Dodger starters allowed only 15 earned runs. The club also got some good situation hitting, meaning players produced well with runners on base. But the difference was really the pitching, which had kept them in the race all year.
Although Manager Tommy Lasorda often used a four- and five-man rotation during the regular season, during the playoffs he plans to rely primarily on Reuss, Valenzuela, and Welch.
This has been a year of ups and downs for Reuss. During the middle of the season, he went 10 weeks without winning because of an arm problem. But Jerry is an excellent competitor and his struggles appear to be over.
Valenzuela, whose bases on balls are way up over last year in relation to his strikeouts, has also uncorked 12 wild pitches in 1983, unheard of for a man with his reputation for control. However, Fernando still leads the Dodgers in complete games and strikeouts.
Welch, despite a hip injury that has occasionally affected his ability to keep the ball down and caused him to miss several turns, nevertheless shared the Dodger lead in victories with Fernando and has an earned-run average of under three.
For a while this season L.A. had a well-balanced bullpen, anchored by left-hander Steve Howe and right-hander Tom Niedenfuer, but Howe is out because of drug-related problems, and although the Dodgers have put left-hander Rick Honeycutt in the bullpen for the playoffs, they really have no one to replace Howe.
At 6 ft. 5 in. and 225 lbs., Niedenfuer looks as though he could pitch every day of the week, but claims he can't. As the No. 2 bullpen ace behind Howe, Tom always seemed confident and comfortable, except on those days when his slider wasn't working. Now, with Steve gone, he seems to be carrying a mental burden.
Since the Dodgers beat the Phillies 11 of 12 during the regular season, there is no reason to believe they can't somehow win three playoff games, even if the final three of this series are scheduled for Philadelphia.