Dodgers clinch West title before falling to Padres

LOS ANGELES -- The Dodgers waited nearly eight hours to express themselves after clinching their first NL West championship in four years. They made up for the delay with a wild celebration on the field and in the clubhouse.

"We're not done yet. We have an objective," champagne-soaked pitcher Chad Billingsley said. "It's just been a great year, with all we've gone through."

The Dodgers clinched the title without lifting a bat. Entering the day with a magic number of one, they got what they needed when the second-place Arizona Diamondbacks lost 12-3 at St. Louis in the afternoon.

"It's fine with me we don't have to do it on the field," first-year Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "I'm just happy we did it. I'm very proud of this team. Going to the playoffs never gets old."

Several hours later, Brian Giles and Adrian Gonzalez homered and Luis Rodriguez had four hits to lead San Diego to a meaningless 7-5 victory over the Dodgers in their final home game of the regular season.

And with that, the celebration began.

"It's always nice to celebrate, it doesn't matter how long you wait," infielder Nomar Garciaparra said.

Nearly a half-hour after the game ended, Torre toured the area near the Dodgers' dugout slapping hands with several of the fans who stayed for the celebration. A bit earlier, catcher Russell Martin sprayed many of those same fans with champagne and was joined on the field by Manny Ramirez and James Loney, among others.

Dodgers owner Frank McCourt was in the middle of things in the clubhouse, being drenched by several players.

"I'm happy because of all we went through this season," McCourt said. "It was a battle, with all the injuries. At the end of the day, this is all about the fans. They stuck with us through the entire year, and we were scuffling for a while. It was a fantastic finish."

Torre guided the New York Yankees to four World Series titles and 12 playoff appearances in as many years before leaving the team last fall. He was then hired by the Dodgers, signing a three-year $13 million contract.

Torre said he received a text message of congratulations from Diamondbacks manager Bob Melvin. "He's a class act," Torre said, adding that Yankees general manager Brian Cashman called as well to offer his best wishes.

Torre gave credit to his players for winning the division.

"Anytime a manager thinks that he's responsible for something that players do, he's a little deluded," the 68-year-old skipper said. "I just try to get everybody thinking and going in the same direction and being on the same page. That's my job, trying to put out fires here and there. My job is to keep people focused.

"I never envisioned myself at 67, 68 years old going somewhere new to start over -- and I'm glad I did it."

Torre said he watched the final inning of the Diamondbacks' loss in his office with his wife, general manager Ned Colletti and McCourt and his wife, Jamie.

"I'm relieved and ecstatic at the same time," Colletti said. "I'm proud of the team, proud of what they've gone through this year and how they came together the last four or five weeks. They fought through a lot of adversity."

McCourt and Dodgers executive Tom Lasorda walked through the left field pavilion during the game, shaking hands with the fans as they went.

Ramirez found out the Dodgers qualified for the playoffs from a reporter after entering an elevator to the team's clubhouse with teammate Pablo Ozuna about an hour after Arizona lost.

"It's good, but it's just the first step," said Ramirez, who has played so well since joining the Dodgers less than two months ago that there's been MVP talk. "We're happy, but we're not going to go crazy about it. The goal is to go to the big dance, the World Series.

"Not a lot of players get a chance to go to the playoffs in their career. I've been blessed. You want to win it all. That's when you get that feeling you can't describe, like we had in Boston."

The Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years in 2004, with Ramirez winning the MVP award, and won it again last year. But Ramirez wanted out a few months back, and got his wish, being sent to the Dodgers at the trade deadline.

"The sky's the limit. You never know," he said of the Dodgers' chances. "We're a pretty good team. Anything can happen."

The Dodgers have won just one postseason game since winning the World Series 20 years ago, going 1-12 in four playoff appearances. They'll face either the Chicago Cubs, Philadelphia Phillies or New York Mets on the road to begin the first round next week.

The Dodgers were in trouble after losing their eighth straight game Aug. 29, a 9-3 setback at Arizona that gave the Diamondbacks a 4 1/2-game lead in the division. But with Ramirez leading the way, they turned things around and won 18 of 23 games -- including five straight over the Diamondbacks.

Ramirez is hitting .393 with 17 homers and 53 RBIs in 51 games with the Dodgers.

Casey Blake and Garciaparra were among several players in the clubhouse when the Diamondbacks' game ended, more than 4 1/2 hours before the Dodgers played the Padres.

"It feels outstanding," said Blake, another midseason acquisition. "You get brought over to do a job. It looked pretty bleak there for a while. We turned it around."

Second baseman Jeff Kent, whose postseason status has been in question since he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee Sept. 2, said the real fun starts when the playoffs begin.

"I've played on playoff teams about half my career, and you never forget the ones that go beyond making it to the first round with a division title," he said. "When you end up playing for a pennant and a World Series, that's when they become special. For me, as a player that grinds it out and really doesn't celebrate a whole lot, it is special to stand back and watch this going on.

"One kick that I get out of this right now standing here, is that this is a team that expected it's young players to step up. And to see it happen now, it's special. These kids are enjoying themselves, and most of them are going through it for the first time. And having a taste of it, this will add to their experience and exposure to what it takes to win."

The 40-year-old Kent, who singled as a pinch hitter in his return Wednesday night and again in the first of two at-bats Thursday night, has said for years the main reason he plays is to be part of a championship team. He came close in 2002 as a member of the San Francisco Giants, who lost the World Series to the Angels in seven games.

Opening-day starters Kent and shortstop Rafael Furcal were in lineup Thursday night, but played only three innings each before coming out. Furcal's postseason status is uncertain as well. He missed 125 games with back problems before appearing as a pinch hitter Wednesday night.

Angel Berroa, who began the season in the Kansas City organization, and Blake DeWitt, the opening-day starter at third base in his major league debut, have been the starters at shortstop and second base, respectively, since the Dodgers began their turnaround Aug. 30.

Game notes
Jake Peavy (10-11) earned the victory, allowing three runs in five innings. Trevor Hoffman, the fifth Padres pitcher, worked a hitless ninth for his 29th save in 33 chances. ... Giles' two-run homer in the first put the Padres ahead for good. ... Greg Maddux, scheduled to start against the Padres, was replaced by rookie left-hander Eric Stults (2-3), who allowed four hits and three runs in 4 2/3 innings. ... Torre said Derek Lowe will pitch Friday night to begin a three-game series in San Francisco, with Maddux going Saturday and Hiroki Kuroda working Sunday. ... The game was played before a crowd of 52,569, raising the season total to 3,730,750 -- the third-highest total in Dodger Stadium history.