A playoff atmosphere saturated Dodger Stadium on Tuesday night as a crowd of 42,473 made up for the 13,000 or so empty seats in Game 161 of a season in which Los Angeles continued to hang on by the slimmest thread to its postseason aspirations.
The crowd roared when Luis Cruz turned a third-inning San Francisco rally into an inning-ending double play by diving to his left to snare a sharp Pablo Sandoval ground ball. The decibels surged when A.J. Ellis brought the Dodgers within one with his two-run homerun in the seventh inning.
With the tying run on second base with two outs in the ninth inning and very few tail lights illuminating the parking lot, the notoriously traffic-passive L.A. crowd remained on its feet as if to will the team to a win that would move them within one game of the St. Louis Cardinals for the second Wild Card spot with one game to play.
And then Mark Ellis sent a line-drive, fly-ball hybrid that just hung up in the warm southland air for a moment too long. It fell into Angel Pagan’s outstretched glove about as harmlessly as the Dodgers themselves had appeared throughout much of a tepid second half.
“It’s not a good feeling. We knew we had our backs against the wall, but now that it’s officially over, it just kind of sinks in a little bit, which is not a good feeling,” Clayton Kershaw said.
The loss ended Los Angeles’ six-game win streak and eliminated them from postseason contention only a few hours after St. Louis’ 3-1 home loss to Cincinnati had left the door of postseason possibility wide open. The Cardinals will travel to Atlanta for a one-game Wild Card clash on Friday, while the Dodgers will play out Wednesday’s season-ender before cleaning out their lockers.
“That drive home to Arizona at the end of this is going to give some time to reflect and think about this one and I guess, at the top of my head, how we’re heading in the right direction,” said Andre Ethier, a Phoenix resident.
“We’re moving up and moving where we want to be.”
That sentiment represents the opposite of what the Dodgers were able to accomplish over the last three months.
Though some immediate consideration after Tuesday’s loss was offered in the direction of Matt Kemp, who went 0-4 with three strikeouts and twice ended innings with runners on base, and Mark Ellis, who inexplicably tried to stretch a double into a triple and was thrown out at third base in the seventh inning to dampen a Dodger rally, this team was done in by an awful 46-59 midseason stretch that reduced them from National League contenders to afterthoughts.
Los Angeles was 7.5 games ahead of San Francisco after a 5-1 win over Houston on May 27, and 11 games out of first place after a 6-0 loss in Cincinnati on September 22. Through that time, they were swept by Milwaukee, Oakland, San Francisco (twice) and Arizona (twice, though once in a two-game series). A 1-11 stretch to end June in which a depleted Dodger lineup lost Matt Kemp to a hamstring injury before Andre Ethier succumbed to an oblique strain represented the margin of difference between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Nine games now separate the first and second place N.L. West squads with one game to play.
Injuries burden every team in every major professional sport, though the players the Dodgers lost this season happened to be mostly major impact players. Chad Billingsley had posted a 1.29 ERA through six straight wins before his season was ended in August due to elbow pain, while the absence of Kemp, Ethier, and even the unsung production from Jerry Hairston accounted for diminished production in the second half of the season.
“Right around the time we got Josh Beckett, we lose Billingsley. So that’s a one-for-one,” Mattingly said. “And then we get Adrian [Gonzalez], and we lose Matt [Kemp]. So really, we didn’t really pick anybody up through any one of those deals, in a sense, because Matt was banged up after that. It’s been a while to get him back.”
How badly did L.A. need Billingsley? They went from September 2 to September 25 without a starter earning a win, a stretch in which they went 8-12 and were unable to sustain any momentum in a critically important time of the season.
Still, this is a team that ranks second in the National League with a 3.35 ERA entering Wednesday’s finale.
It was the team’s .252 batting average and 114 homeruns – the second-fewest in the Major Leagues – that caused so many exasperated shrugs.
“I have no idea,” Ethier said of what ailed the team’s stalled offense. “No idea.”
Both Mattingly and players expressed bewilderment Tuesday over the lack of an offensive resurgence after the trade that netted the team Adrian Gonzalez, who was expected to account for the production James Loney was unable to provide at first base. The Dodgers have fallen from three to eight games out of first place since Gonzalez homered in his first at bat with the club on August 24.
“Once we kind of got all these guys together, I think the expectation was that everyone’s going to roll on through the rest of the way. I think from that period forward, it’s been kind of disappointing,” Mattingly said.
“I definitely buy into ‘chemistry’ to a point, but I think there’s something to be said about ‘team’. We went over this numerous times trying to figure out what was going on while we weren’t scoring runs. I don’t know if there’s a true explanation. We just weren’t getting it done.”
It was unfortunately representative that Kemp, in two of his most impactful at bats of the Dodgers season, struck out and bounced back to the box on Tuesday night with an opportunity to stir up a little Chavez Ravine magic. The lack of timely hitting and big hits seemed to represent the team’s offensive malaise.
“It’s kind of going to stick with me for a while. It hurts,” Kemp said. “I just didn’t do my job tonight. I came up short.”
“Obviously I’m proud of these guys,” Mattingly said. “The way that we just didn’t want to give in – these guys did not want to lose. This was a tough night. Everything kind of comes to a screeching halt. You’re invested in what you do. You go in to the winter and you’re building a club, and you go into spring training and you’re fighting for what you believe in and how you want to play, and you’re fighting to win. Honestly, at the end of the day there’s going to be basically one club that wins, but to not have that opportunity to move forward is painful.”
“We’re going to learn from this. At the end of the day, we’re going to learn from this. Again, you’re invested, you put so much time in, and it comes to a screeching halt. This is going to soak in. I think you have to allow this pain and what you go through now to be what fuels you for the winter.”
“When you start your training, this is what’s got to fuel you. This feeling, right here, that you don’t want to have again. We’re going to grow from it. This club got in a sense put together really late. It took a little bit for us to get going, and we’ll have a shot to be able to start fresh, and we’ll see where we go.”
It was a sentiment pithily summed up by Kershaw.
“It took a little too long for us to figure it out.”