LOS ANGELES - It is with a mixture of respect, disdain and maybe a little fear that the Phillies approach tonight's game against Dodgers starter Vicente Padilla.

It is with a concerted sense of curiosity.

"Which Padilla is going to show up?" asked one Phillie, familiar with Padilla's issues.

That, indeed, is the question.

Will it be the disruptive, dismissive Padilla run out of Philadelphia after five inconsistent seasons, then cut by Texas after 3 1/2?

Or will it be the inclusive, ingratiating Padilla, unbeaten since the Dodgers plucked him off the scrap heap Aug. 19?

Or will they get the knucklehead who flips knuckleballs and slurves?

All indications are, the Phillies will see the best Padilla has to offer in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series. He was released by the Rangers at near the end of a 3-year, $34 million contract, and teammates welcomed his exit. So toxic was Padilla, who had begun to earn a reputation as a headhunter, that he cleared waivers.

Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti vetted Padilla with Padilla's former manager, current Dodgers coach Larry Bowa, and a former teammate, lefty Randy Wolf.

Padilla went 4-0 in seven starts with the Dodgers in the regular season. He dealt seven scoreless innings against in St. Louis in the clinching Game 3 of the NL Division Series last week.

He is pitching for a contract, for his baseball life.

"That game in St. Louis was pretty impressive," said sagacious manager Joe Torre, who has dealt with every sort - but maybe no one quite like Padilla. "Would I have dreamed, at the time we got him, that he was going to pitch Game 2 of the Championship Series? No, I didn't envision that."

He's not alone.

"I didn't think I was going to come this far," Padilla said.

Wolf said the secret to getting the most out of Padilla is to leave him alone. Let him come. Let him go. Baseball's world of ritual and hierarchy have never had meaning for Padilla; its code of ethics and honor have never governed him.

His hero hasn't exactly been known for adhering to baseball's arcane traditions, either. He faces his hero, Phillies righthander Pedro Martinez, tonight - perhaps a clever distraction by the Phillies, who, better than any team, know how easy it can be to distract Padilla.

"He was my idol," Padilla said in a rare moment of acknowledgment.

Martinez, of course, has rehabilitated his own image repeatedly. Now, with Hall of Fame aspirations and a more pedestrian arm, he plays the role of war-weary adviser.

"As far as stuff, Padilla is right there with anybody," Martinez said. "I pray he stays healthy and he refocuses his mind to playing baseball, and obeys Joe Torre the way he should."

If that happens tonight, the Phillies won't like the answers to all of those questions.

Dodges

The Dodgers took Jon Garland off their first-round playoff roster and replaced him with Hiroki Kuroda, who will start Game 3 in Philadelphia on Sunday. Kuroda missed the NLDS with a neck issue he thinks resulted from being hit in the head by a liner last month, which initially cost him 3 weeks . . . They also selected lefty Scott Elbert over righthander Jeff Weaver, a move predicated on the Phillies' lefty-heavy lineup. *