A week ago, the Dodgers limped home from Cincinnati on a four-game losing streak but with hopes high. They were ready to party, and they figured they would do it before they had to get on another airplane. They were going to play seven games, three of them head-to-head with the second-place Arizona Diamondbacks and four with the last-place and presumably beatable San Francisco Giants, and at some point during the week they were going to whoop and holler and douse each other with champagne and then start concentrating on getting all their stuff together for the playoffs.
Today, the Dodgers limped back out of town, their National League West division title still not officially secured and their opinions of themselves a little less inflated. It all began promisingly enough, with two wins over the Diamondbacks to push them to the brink of elimination, but Arizona salvaged the finale on Wednesday night, and the Dodgers wound up losing four of the final five on what was supposed to be their triumphant penultimate homestand of the season.
Now, the home fans won’t see them for a while. And if the Dodgers still haven’t clinched when they do get back to town on Sept. 28, well, then it’ll be time to start worrying.
That isn’t going to happen, of course. The Dodgers’ magic number is still a miniscule four, with 13 to go. They’ll get it done, probably sometime this week. All they need to do is split this week’s four-game series in Phoenix to clinch, and even if they don’t, even if the Diamondbacks manage to sweep, the Dodgers still would hold a 6 1/2-game lead with nine to go. Winning this division isn’t going to be a problem.
But there was a strange feeling in the clubhouse after the game. There was silence, as there always is after a loss. There were equipment bags all over the floor, as there always are after the final game in a particular city. There was a larger-than-usual media crush, as there always is after a day game at home because all the local electronic outlets can get soundbytes early enough to make the early-evening newscast.
But this time, there was something else, something we haven’t felt from this clubhouse in a long, long time.
It was that vague sense of self doubt.
The Dodgers have as many losses (eight) in their past 11 games as they had in their previous 43 games. That inexorable march THROUGH the postseason suddenly has been reduced to an inevitable but rather bumpy march TO the postseason, and nothing more. The odds of gaining homefield advantage for even their first-round playoff series are becoming longer, the Dodgers (86-63) now holding just the fourth best record in the National League. And with the playoff format that has been in place since 1995 set up to reward the hottest team, and not necessarily the best team, the Dodgers have gone stone cold.
A lot of it can be blamed on injuries, of course. At the start of today’s game, the Dodgers didn’t have Andre Ethier or Carl Crawford or Hanley Ramirez or Matt Kemp or Yasiel Puig. Remember when we were wondering how they were going to juggle four outfielders for three spots? Today, not one of those four outfielders was available. By the end of the game, of that group, they only had Puig, who went to the plate to pinch hit with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the ninth and rolled over to shortstop on the first pitch he saw from Giants closer Sergio Romo. In a situation when the Dodgers needed only a single to win the game, Puig was the choice of manager Don Mattingly despite the fact he is battling left-hip tightness, and despite the fact Scott Van Slyke, Alex Castellanos and Tim Federowicz all were on the bench, none of whom, presumably, is battling left-hip tightness. And in fairness to Mattingly, even a gimpy Puig might well have been the most likely of that group to get the hit the Dodgers so desperately needed.
But Puig didn’t get that hit, and the Dodgers jetted off to Phoenix no less desperate.
Desperate is a strange word, of course, when you’re talking about a team on the brink of popping champagne. But it might just be that this team has gotten a little ahead of itself in recent weeks. To his credit, Mattingly has steadfastly refused to address anything playoff-releated when asked by the media. And you know what? Dropping four of seven and failing to clinch on this homestand just might have been good for these Dodgers. Maybe it got their attention a little bit.
All those aforementioned injured players are expected back relatively quickly — even Kemp, who figures to be activated from the disabled list for the first time in a couple of months before tomorrow night’s game at Chase Field. The Dodgers have plenty of time to get their stuff together. And make no mistake, that weird feeling in the clubhouse wasn’t panic, or anything close to it.
Still, with each day that passes without the magic number shrinking and without the offense being able to scratch out runs with any consistency — they scored all their runs today on a single swing of the bat by Adrian Gonzalez, a three-run double in the fifth inning — that self-doubt is going to grow a little bit. And if it’s still there when the playoffs finally begin, when the Dodgers don’t have luxury of a big lead and a margin for error, it could be over quickly.