Joe Torre enjoyed one of the great managing careers in MLB history. The bulk of the success came with the New York Yankees, but it also included a playoff team in Atlanta at the beginning of his career and two more in Los Angeles at the end. The 2009 Los Angeles Dodgers were Torre’s last contender.
After being forced out in New York after the 2007 season, Torre landed in Los Angeles. The proud Dodger franchise had been in a holding pattern since their World Series title in 1988. They were usually a winning team and made several playoff appearances. But they never advanced past the Division Series, and perhaps worse, it was never a real shock that they didn’t. The Dodgers were merely above-average, not a real World Series hopeful.
It took some time in 2008 for the Dodgers to get going under Torre. But aided by the July acquisition of Manny Ramirez, they won the NL West and then finally won a postseason series, beating the Chicago Cubs. Even though the year ended with a National League Championship Series to the eventual champion Philadelphia Phillies, the Dodgers were back. And it looked like 2009 might be even better.
Ramirez was now 37-years-old, but the man who battled Torre in the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry could still hit. Manny had a .418 on-base percentage/.531 slugging percentage. Casey Blake, another veteran, had a big year at third base. The 35-year-old posted numbers of .363/.468.
Surrounding the vets was a core of promising young hitters. James Loney, posted a .357 OBP at first base. Russell Martin was in the same neighborhood at .352, a rising young catcher. And perhaps no young stars were brighter than centerfielder Matt Kemp (.352/.490) and rightfielder Andre Ethier (.361/.508). The two combined to hit 57 homes and rack up 207 RBIs.
The pitching got steady work from Randy Wolf, who won 11 games with a 3.23 ERA and Hiroki Kuroda. And the staff had its own young guns—Chad Billingsley won 12 games at age 24. And there was the 21-year-old phenom named Clayton Kershaw that started 30 games, went 8-8 and posted a 2.79 ERA. Jonathan Broxton ably cleaned up in the ninth, with 36 saves and a 2.61 ERA.
Los Angeles got out to a fast start, going 35-17 over the first two months and leading the NL West by eight and a half games. For much of the summer, the lead ranged from 5 ½ to 9 ½ before the Colorado Rockies got on a run that cut the lead to two games in late August after they beat the Dodgers in a series opener at Coors Field.
Wolf answered by beating the Rockies 6-1 and they lead grew back to six games. Colorado reduced the margin to two games again on September 11, although by this point both teams were in firm command of at least getting what was then the single wild-card spot in the playoffs, so there was no real playoff race pressure. The Dodgers pulled back away, finished 95-67 and won another NL West title.
The St. Louis Cardinals were in the playoffs for the first time since winning the 2006 World Series and awaited in the Division Series. Albert Pujols had an MVP year for the Cardinals, and they had another good power hitter in Matt Holliday, anchoring a steady lineup. The top of the rotation was built for a short series—Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter had combined to win 36 games, and closer Ryan Franklin finished with 38 saves and a 1.92 ERA.
Los Angeles was ready though, and they held homefield advantage. Shortstop Rafael Furcal had been steady all year long and he came up big in Game 1. Furcal led off the bottom of the first with a single, the first of his three hits. Kemp unloaded with a home run. Torre had a quick hook and used six pitchers to help chisel out a 5-3 win.
Holliday beat Kershaw for an early home run in Game 2 and even though the lefty settled down, the Cardinals still led 2-1 in the ninth. The first two batters were out and Loney then hit a line drive to left. It was a nicely hit ball, but Holliday had a fairly routine play on it as he ran in. The left fielder—perhaps influenced by the late afternoon soon, misplayed the ball, it hit off his chest and the game was still on.
It was all the opening the Dodgers needed. Blake drew a walk and Ronnie Belliard singled, tying the game. After a passed ball and a walk, Mark Loretta lined a single to left. Los Angeles had done more than win the game, and even more than go up 2-0 in the series. The Dodgers had beaten both Wainwright and Carpenter and handed the Cardinals’ a stomach-punch loss.
Even though the series went back to St. Louis, no one was surprised when Los Angeles just kept the momentum going. Furcal had two hits, Ethier and Manny each had three hits/2 RBI nights, and the Dodgers coasted home, 5-1.
They were going back to the National League Championship Series and once again, the Philadelphia Phillies were waiting.
The teams split the first two games in Los Angeles and it seemed like a tense series would be in the works. But sometimes baseball can pull the rug out from under anticipated drama. Torre had been on the right side of that kind of surprise in the 2001 American League Championship Series, when his Yankees made surprisingly easy work of the 116-win Seattle Mariners. This time around, Torre was on the wrong side.
Philadelphia destroyed Kuroda in Game 3 by an 11-0 count. The Dodgers were set to the series in Game 4 with a 4-3 lead, but Broxton surrendered a two-out, two-run double to Jimmy Rollins. Los Angeles went quietly one night later, 10-4. The series never made it back to Los Angeles.
Torre would manage one more year, but the Dodgers did not make the playoffs in 2010. He went on to take a post in the MLB offices in New York. That wasn’t a surprise, but the fact Los Angeles spent the next three years out of the postseason party were.
Ownership problems held the team back, injuries played a role and the young core didn’t come together the way everyone was anticipating. Not until prior to the 2012 season, when former Los Angeles Lakers great Magic Johnson led a group that bought the team and stabilized the front office, did the Dodgers start to come back.