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Dodgers Show Cards The Exit

ST. LOUIS - The Los Angeles Dodgers are rolling.

They are good when they have to be, lucky when they need to be, led by a wise man who knows October like he knows his bedroom closet.

"The one thing I know," Joe Torre was saying about his team, "is they're not afraid of anything."

In other words, who knows when they might stop?

The Dodgers are going so good, they finished off the St. Louis Cardinals on Saturday night with another team's castoff. The clincher to a sweep came 5-1, a complete throttling in the ballpark where the Cardinals had hoped to find new life.

Who showed the Cardinals the door so ruthlessly - Albert Pujols and all? That was Vicente Padilla, cut loose by the Texas Rangers in August. St. Louis wanted to reach him and reach him early Saturday. Get the crowd involved.

He gave them four hits in seven innings. Starting with the Yadier Molina ground out that ended a bases-loaded jam in the first, Padilla retired 19 of the last 21 batters he faced. Pujols even looked at a third strike. Supposedly, the Dodgers were pitching around him, but Padilla was striking him out.

The Cardinals looked like a beaten team nearly from national anthem to Dodger champagne party. Now we know that dropped ball the other night in Dodger Stadium - and the loss that ensued - broke them for good.

"Today from the get-go," Tony La Russa said, "they beat us."

Meanwhile, Los Angeles seems every bit a Torre team. Calm, resolved, understanding what this month is about. The Dodgers had not won a postseason series in 20 years before Torre showed up last year. Now they are in their second straight league championship series, awaiting the Philadelphia-Colorado winner if it ever stops snowing in Denver.

It would be absurd to call that a coincidence

"He's incredible. Nothing overwhelms him," catcher Russell Martin said.

And what had the Dodgers learned from him?

"We weren't going to lose our identity as a team because of the magnitude of the games," Martin said.

Supposedly, the Dodgers were fading at the end of the regular season when their lead melted.

"A big gut check," Andre Ethier called it. They finished with best record in the National League, the best earned run average, tied for the best team batting average - and everyone was picking the Cardinals.

"Joe reminded us, 'You guys didn't win 95 games for nothing,' " Ethier said.

"I try to add perspective to it, just about the simple things, and don't look too far down the road," Torre said. "You really have to pay attention to right this minute. That's really the only message that's really been consistent with what I've tried to tell these guys."

So day, by day, they squeezed the life from the Cardinals, beat their two Cy Young candidates, then buried St. Louis on Saturday. "You just try to chip away at the other team's confidence," Torre said. "And then build up your own."

Postseason baseball 101, taught by a man with his doctorate.

Padilla was supposed to be a head case nobody liked in Texas. The Dodgers, like shoppers at a garage sale, picked him up for pocket change.

"I was welcomed like family," he said. Now he's 5-0 with Los Angeles.

"I think he believes in his ability more," said Dodgers coach Larry Bowa, who once managed Padilla in Philadelphia. "And let's be honest. He wants a contract for next year."

"He's been easy for me," Torre said.

But then, so many things look easy for Torre, which is why his shadow is so long in the fall, and why he looked so young and at home getting doused in champagne in the middle of the Dodgers clubhouse.

"You have all these come together and become one," he said. "To me as a manager, that's the most satisfying thing I can ever feel."

Of course, he's done most of that in Yankee pinstripes.

"It's been very different from New York," he mentioned the other day. "Except this time of year, it's all the same."

Everyone is frantic to get to the World Series, from the Bronx to Hollywood. The Dodgers are one step closer.

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