Can the Dodgers beat the elite pitchers in baseball?
The Cliff Lees and Chris Carpenters will be the biggest obstacles in the postseason, and the Dodgers made a breakthrough of sorts Sunday by finally conquering defending Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum and the Giants, 6-2.
The Dodgers' magic number for a playoff berth is down to four and their victory total is up to 90. With 12 games remaining, they are on pace to finish with 97 wins, which would be the most since they won 98 in 1977. They are 30 games above .500 for the first time since 1985.
"This club is playing with a purpose right now," said manager Joe Torre. "They understand what's out there and what's at stake and they can't expect anyone else to do it for them."
The consistent Randy Wolf (11-6) outpitched Lincecum (14-6), allowing only a pair of solo homers to Andres Torres in six-plus innings. Andre Ethier gave Wolf a lead with a two-run homer in the third inning, giving him 31 homers and 101 RBIs. Ronnie Belliard extended the lead with a two-run single in the fourth, giving him 14 RBIs in 16 games as a Dodger. Rafael Furcal tripled, scored twice and stole a base for the third time in the last five games.
"Tim didn't have his best stuff today," said Torre. "But we had good at-bats and made him throw pitches. From the first inning, we weren't overmatched."
And that's an improvement for the Dodgers. They've not only been overmatched by Lincecum in the past (he was 3-0 in six previous starts against the Dodgers), but they came into the game only 3-10 against the top 10 pitchers in the league in wins this year.
"That's why teams have an ace," said Ethier. "They don't get beat too often. This is a good test and warmup for what's to come, hopefully."
Wolf said it's important for a team not to get beat "by the uniform"; in other words, don't concede defeat because of the opposing starter's reputation.
"We knew after losing the first game, it would be tough to take two of three because [Brad] Penny beat us last week and Lincecum was going today," said Wolf. "But [Lincecum] had an off-day today and we took advantage of the opportunity. It's really big to beat a guy of Lincecum's stature."
The Dodgers were patient with Lincecum, who came into the game with the league's lowest ERA but left after four-plus innings, his shortest start since Opening Day. Manny Ramirez drew a walk in the first inning and Wolf extracted a four-pitch walk in the third inning. Two batters later, Ethier drove a changeup into the right-center pavilion for the Dodgers' first 100 RBI season since J.D. Drew in 2006, the first 30/100 season since Adrian Beltre in 2004 and the first by a Dodgers outfielder since Shawn Green in 2002.
"Seeing those guys, when you're growing up, hitting 100 RBIs, they're the guys doing the job and now I'm one of them," said Ethier.
Lincecum took hard a loss that dropped the Giants 4 1/2 games behind Colorado for the Wild Card.
"Definitely today was a big game. You can tell by the look on my face I'm not really happy about my outing and the way I let the team down," said Lincecum. "It's hard to say you let the team down, but I just felt like I could have done a better job out there, put up a better fight, and hopefully it would have been a closer game. But that wasn't the case today."
The Dodgers' offensive strategy is to at least stay on even terms while driving up the pitch count of the opposing starter, get into the opponent's bullpen, get or pad a lead and then turn it over to a Dodgers bullpen (Hong-Chih Kuo, George Sherrill and Jonathan Broxton ) that again was perfect over the final three innings.
"That's the key," said Russell Martin. "[Hitting coach Don] Mattingly has been preaching that since he came here. Wear down the starter and get to the bullpen and feast on them."
The strategy doesn't work unless the Dodgers' starting pitcher keeps his club in the game, which Wolf has done more consistently than any Dodgers starter this year. He's 11-6 with a whopping 15 no-decisions, the club is 21-11 in his starts and with six innings he surpassed 200 innings for the first time since 2003. He's 6-0 with a 2.41 ERA in his last eight starts, all quality starts.