LOS ANGELES -- It would have been inconceivable only a couple of years ago, but the Los Angeles Dodgers failed to sell out last night's opening game of their National League divisional playoff series with the Cincinnati Reds.
Maybe it was the rush-hour start that left large segments of the upper deck and bleachers unoccupied. Maybe it was a lukewarm reception to baseball's new playoff format that held the crowd to 44,199 -- more than 10,000 under capacity. Maybe it was the fact that a much bigger story broke here earlier in the day.
Whatever the reason, thousands of once-loyal Dodgers fans picked a perfect night to stay away. The Reds knocked starter Ramon Martinez all over the park on their way to a 7-2 victory that could set them up for a very short work week.
Left-hander Pete Schourek gave up two runs on five hits over seven innings to earn his first-ever postseason victory and quickly paint the Dodgers into a prickly playoff predicament.
The Reds already had the home-field advantage in the best-of-five series and needed only a split of the first two games at Dodger Stadium to maintain it. That split now assured, they send left-hander John Smiley against
untested Ismael Valdes in Game 2 tonight with a chance to put Riverfront Stadium on champagne alert Friday.
The game was played under near-perfect conditions. The sky was clear and the game-time temperature was 87 degrees. It may have been too perfect, in fact, for Martinez, who found out early on that Dodger Stadium was going to be particularly friendly to fly-ball hitters.
Martinez struck out center fielder Thomas Howard to open the game, but four of the next five batters hit safely as the Reds jumped out to a four-run lead. Barry Larkin started the rally with a hit to left and Ron Gant followed with a broken-bat single that put runners at first and third, setting Martinez up for an early fall.
Reggie Sanders, perhaps the most dangerous hitter in the Reds lineup, fouled out for the second out of the inning, but Morris lined a double through the gap in left-center to score two runs and Santiago hit a towering fly ball that passed just inside the foul pole to make it four.
Not a good way to begin when the Reds had their most effective starter waiting in the wings. The first inning took pressure off Schourek, who proceeded to shut the Dodgers out on two hits through the first four innings.
It soon would be no mystery how a relatively unheralded left-hander emerged as one of baseball's winningest pitchers this year. Schourek had never won more than seven games in the majors before he emerged as the Reds ace and posted an 18-7 record.
"We've seen Pete before," said Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda. "I admired Pete when he was with the Mets. I could never understand why they released him."
Schourek made it look easy and the Reds offense made it look even easier. They added three more runs in the fifth inning to knock Martinez out of the game and all but assure themselves of an important victory. No matter what happens tonight -- when Smiley faces Valdes in Game 2 -- the Reds will go back to Cincinnati with the home-field advantage intact.
Martinez will have to go back to the drawing board. He gave up seven runs on 10 hits over just 4 1/3 innings in his postseason debut. The Reds finished him off with three hits in the fifth, then treated reliever John Cummings just as rudely. Reds third baseman Jeff Branson greeted him with a double to center that lTC cleared off two inherited runners and put the finishing touches on Martinez's ugly pitching line.
The Dodgers didn't get on the board until he was gone, scoring a run on two hits and a walk in the bottom of the fifth. Brett Butler broke up the shutout with a one-out single to center that scored Delino DeShields and Mike Piazza homered an inning later.