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First Place, but Lots Of Second-Guessing

By David Neiman
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 11, 2004; Page D01

LOS ANGELES -- The questions abounded, and all of them began with the same word: why.

After all, the Los Angeles Dodgers' 31-year-old general manager, Paul DePodesta, had done the unthinkable at the July 31 trade deadline, dealing two-time all-star Paul Lo Duca, Guillermo Mota, Juan Encarnacion, Dave Roberts and Tom Martin to get Steve Finley, Hee Seop Choi, Brent Mayne and Brad Penny.

New Dodgers owner Frank McCourt Jr. welcomes newly acquired first baseman Hee Seop Choi and catcher Brent Mayne, left. Los Angeles also got outfielder Steve Finley and pitcher Brad Penny just before the July 31 trade deadline. (Damian Dovarganes -- AP)

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Why tinker with a team already in first place in the National League West, critics asked, particularly when the changes seemed marginal at best? Why give away clubhouse and fan favorites Roberts and Lo Duca, or Mota, an important part of the bullpen?

Much of the media and public were incredulous. As the newest Dodgers were introduced in a pregame ceremony Aug. 3, an unseen fan somewhere in the upper decks at Chavez Ravine wailed, "Lo Duca!"

The irony of the controversy is that it has diverted the spotlight from an unheralded team that is far surpassing expectations. Picked by many to finish as low as third, the Dodgers (66-45) are in first place, 6 1/2 games ahead of the upstart San Diego Padres in the NL West -- the largest divisional lead Los Angeles has held since 1994. For the first time in eight years, the Dodgers may be headed to the playoffs, where they have not won a game since winning the 1988 World Series.

Getting to the playoffs would mean "an awful lot," said Los Angeles Manager Jim Tracy. "In essence, it would bring to light an awful lot of things that have been done in the previous years to get us to this point."

Those previous years have been ones of frustration, mostly at the hands the San Francisco Giants. For the past three seasons, Los Angeles occupied first place at various times, but each year, the Dodgers fell out of contention, finishing third in 2001 and '02, and second in '03.

But where others saw a team faltering regularly down the stretch, Tracy -- who was named manager in November 2000 -- saw a team that was growing and excelling, particularly in light of its youth and injuries.

"My first year, we won 86 games, and we spent close to 700 days on the disabled list," he said. "In 2002, we won 92 games, and by the eighth of September, we had lost fourth-fifths of our starting rotation. And last year, we scored 17 less runs than the Detroit Tigers, and if I'm not mistaken, we won 85, and they lost 119."

"So did we slip away [down the stretch], or did this team for three years grossly overachieve to be in the position it was in?"

If Los Angeles has been overachieving, then this year is no different, only better.

With a new owner -- Frank McCourt Jr. replaced Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. just three months before the season, and DePodesta was hired Feb. 16 -- the Dodgers began the season on a tear, winning 22 of their first 32 games.

But from May 13 until June 30, Los Angeles staggered, going 17-26. By month's end, they were third in the division, one game behind the Padres, and 3 1/2 behind the Giants.

The low point, said Tracy, was June 24, the day the Giants completed a four-game sweep of the Dodgers in San Francisco.

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