LOS ANGELES -- There was a certain symmetry to it right from the start. Los Angeles Dodgers pitching sensation Hideo Nomo came from another country and took Southern California by storm, much as another exciting rookie pitcher did 14 years earlier. And like Fernando Valenzuela before him, he arrived at a time when the team -- and the game -- needed him most.
The similarities don't end there.
Nomo, like Fernando, won 13 games in his first season in the rotation and, like Fernando, probably will be the National League Rookie of the Year. He also was the starter in the All-Star Game (Valenzuela had been the last rookie pitcher to do that) and helped lead the Dodgers to a division championship in a strike-shortened season.
The Dodgers can only hope that the similarities do not end there, either.
That season featured major-league baseball's only other three-tiered playoff format and the Dodgers fell behind two games to none to the Houston Astros in the split-season divisional series. Thanks in part to the efforts of a cool, slightly mysterious rookie pitcher, the Dodgers came from behind in that series, then came from behind to win the NL pennant and the World Series.
Could it happen again?
"I sure hope so," said Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda, who won his first of two world championships that year.
Nomo will try to begin another unlikely comeback tonight in Cincinnati, when the Dodgers face the Reds in Game 3 of their divisional series. He is the last line of defense for a seemingly defenseless team that moved to the brink of elimination with two ugly home losses.
No major-league club has gone on the road down 0-2 in a best-of-five playoff series and come back a winner -- and League Championship Series were played under a five-game format from 1969 to 1984 -- but the Dodgers seem confident that Nomo will be able to keep them alive tonight.
"Like Fernando, there's an inner sense in Hideo that 'this is what I've prepared all my life to do and now I want to show the world I can do it,' " said Dodgers general manager Fred Claire, who looks like a genius for gambling a $2 million signing bonus on a Japanese pitcher he never had seen. "Not that they should be linked, but they both have great inner confidence. I don't think there has ever been any fear of not succeeding."
There was room for doubt when the velocity on Nomo's fastball dropped late in the season, but he pumped it back up Saturday night to clinch the West.
Tonight's must-win situation figures to pack more pressure, but he already has proved that he can handle it. He also has proved he can handle the Reds, giving up one run over eight innings in his only start against Cincinnati.
"I want to take the same attitude into the postseason that I took during the regular season," Nomo said Wednesday.
TC That should be easy, since he has been getting playoff-level media treatment since spring training. In addition to local and national media, Nomo has been followed by reporters and broadcasters from his native land, leading the Dodgers to hold regular news conferences and keep an interpreter on hand. Just like Fernandomania.
Nomo never reveals much about himself. He wouldn't even bite when asked Wednesday for the highlight of his season.
"Well," he said. "I can't really answer that question. This year hasn't ended yet, and there may be greater moments waiting ahead of me."
The Dodgers can only hope.