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Dodgers optimistic they can win NL West

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Posted: Sunday, March 30, 2003 11:12 pm

The most storied franchise in the National League West has been an afterthought over the past seven seasons.

A healthy starting rotation and a healthier attitude in the clubhouse has the Los Angeles Dodgers believing they finally will topple the Diamondbacks and San Francisco Giants to claim their first division title since 1995.

"There's definitely a better feeling in here," outfielder Shawn Green said Sunday before the team's workout at Bank One Ballpark. "We've added a good mix of veterans who've been around a while and have had success in this game. That is only going to help us with the overall balance of the team."

Keying the Dodgers’ increased optimism is the health of starting pitchers Kevin Brown and Darren Dreifort.

Dreifort missed all of last season after undergoing Tommy John ligament-replacement surgery on his right elbow on July 9, 2001. Brown pitched just 63 innings in 2002, going 3-4 with a 4.81 ERA, and underwent back surgery June 11.

This spring Dreifort went 1-2 with a 1.96 ERA while Brown was 2-1 with a minuscule 1.03 ERA — fanning 34 batters while walking just three.

"That's obviously going to be a big key for them," said Arizona manager Bob Brenly, whose team will face the Dodgers in six of their first nine games, including today's season opener at BOB. "If Dreifort and Brown can come back to the form they had before their injuries, they're a very, very formidable team."

Brown, who also had elbow surgery in 2001, said Sunday that his health is no longer an issue.

"My velocity and movement aren't where I want them to be yet, but I'm not questioning whether they'll come back any more,'' said Brown who admitted worrying about the future of his career. "There were definitely times when I doubted it. You've got to pitch before you know for sure. It doesn't matter how hard you work away from the game."

With a healthy Brown and Dreifort joining Odalis Perez, Hideo Nomo and Kazuhisa Ishii, L.A. has perhaps the best rotation in the division.

But the Dodgers were also able to shore up a lineup that lacked left-side punch by adding ageless first baseman Fred McGriff in the offseason.

Dodgers first basemen, predominantly Eric Karros, accounted for 14 homers and 91 RBIs last season with an on-base percentage of .334. McGriff had 30 homers and 103 RBIs last year with a .353 on-base percentage. McGriff's addition gives L.A. the ability to go lefty, righty, lefty, righty in the heart of the order with Green batting third, Brian Jordan fourth, McGriff fifth and Adrian Beltre sixth.

Just as important, Perez said, is the change in attitude that players like McGriff have helped foster. In addition to Karros' departure, the club dealt second baseman Mark Grudzielanek and lost pitchers Jesse Orosco and Omar Daal, outfielder Marquis Grissom, catcher Chad Kreuter and infielder Dave Hansen to free agency.

"Maybe there were guys on this team last year; maybe they weren't winners," Perez said earlier this spring. "But we have a different team this year. We are a different team.''

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