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Pitching, defense could be key to Dodgers-Cardinals playoff duel

The Los Angeles Dodgers won their season series from the St. Louis Cardinals seven games to five, so why should the National League playoffs be any different? Because baseball is not an exact science, that's why. Because things like bad hops and synthetic turf can alter things in the twinkling of a ground ball. Even last-place teams, on days when one of their pitchers is hot, can make a defending world champion look commonplace.

Besides, the Cardinals have some statistics on their side too. They won more games, scored many more runs, and committed far fewer errors than the Dodgers. And their speed on the basepaths can unsettle any opponent.

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The first two games of this best-of-seven series will be played at Dodger Stadium tonight and tomorrow night, the action then shifting to St. Louis for the middle games and back to L.A. if a sixth or seventh game is necessary.

Redbird fans are quick to point out that St. Louis had two 20-game winners this year in Joaquin Andujar and John Tudor, who between them could get four playoff starts. The Cardinals also have what appears to be the more reliable bullpen. And that's just for openers.

For closers, there are batting champion Willie McGee; base-stealing king and near-certain Rookie on the Year Vince Coleman; and perhaps the best two middle infielders in baseball in shortstop Ozzie Smith and second baseman Tommy Herr, who are masters at turning the double play and cutting off ground balls headed for the outfield.

The Dodgers, 22-25 in April and May, struggled early and weren't expected to make the playoffs in the first place. Even now certain L.A. infielders throw to first under pressure with all the accuracy of a younger Elizabeth Taylor unleashing her first bridal bouquet.

Center field and first base have become platoon positions. And lately the bullpen has begun its work with all the confidence of Orson Welles undertaking a journey over a suspension bridge made from Tinker Toys.

Of course this is not the same Dodger team that was supposed to start the season. Changes began on Opening Day when rookie Mariano Duncan, who had never played above Double-A ball before, was a last-minute replacement at second base for the injured Steve Sax.

By the time Sax returned, the Dodgers' shortstop position was so fouled up that Duncan was moved there as a kind of ``necessity is the mother of invention'' switch and wound up making one impossible play after another.

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The big turnaround began, though, on June 1, when Manager Tommy Lasorda finally ended his two-year experiment with Pedro Guerrero at third base and moved him back to the outfield. Guerrero responded with 15 home runs (a league record for June), plus 27 RBIs in just 25 games.

July was an even better month for the Dodgers, who made up 51/2 games to surge past San Diego into first place in the NL West. This was also the month when pitchers Fernando Valenzuela, Bob Welch, and Orel Hershiser combined for a 14-1 record, including nine complete games and three shutouts.

The Dodgers acquired what they considered the final piece in the puzzle on Aug. 31 by trading three young players to Pittsburgh for third baseman Bill Madlock, a four-time NL batting champion.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals, with a lineup that seldom changed from day to day, were engaged in a season-long struggle with the New York Mets. Manager Whitey Herzog, like Lasorda, got help from people he probably didn't think would produce so much so soon.

Pitcher Danny Cox, who was 9-11 in 1984, won 18 games, including a big victory over the Mets down the stretch. Even more astounding were the 12 victories contributed by Kurt Kepshire, who had been a short reliever until two years ago and had thrown only 109 big league innings coming into this season. Herzog, who joked that he became 45 games dumber when the team let free agent Bruce Sutter escape to Atlanta (45 being Sutter's '84 save total) needn't have been concerned.

With relievers Jeff Lahti and Ken Dayley combining for 28 saves, plus Tudor, Cox, and Andujar turning in 32 complete games, there were times when Whitey never had to move from his seat in the dugout.

For the Dodgers to win the playoffs, they would need several low-scoring games from their starters, plus a much tighter defense. For the Cardinals, the job should be easier, chiefly because no other team in baseball has as many different ways in which it can beat an opponent.

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