More pressure, fewer hits for Dodgers
Facing the pressure of waging a faltering battle to reclaim the wide-open second wild-card spot, Don Mattingly spoke of a particular message to his team before Thursday's series-opener against the St. Louis Cardinals.
"We have to be able to relax and play," the Dodgers skipper said. "You play your best baseball when you're relaxed. It's always that fine line if you're too relaxed, or whatever. We've just got to perform. At the end of the day, we've got to perform."
His anti-pressing plea didn't work as the Dodgers dropped a 2-1 decision, falling two games back of the sputtering Cardinals in the National League wild-card race. It was the first time either team had won this week — with three games remaining in this pivotal series.
Los Angeles' hole-filled bats struck out in six different innings and produced just two hits in 17 at-bats after Shane Victorino's fifth-inning, leadoff single as the Dodgers lost for the seventh time in eight games.
"I can't really explain to you what's going on. We've just got to start hitting," Matt Kemp said
Neither the Cardinals, who have been outscored 92-49 over their previous 16 games, nor the Dodgers, who failed to score more than three runs for the eighth consecutive game, appeared as if they knew how to win on Thursday night.
St. Louis stranded 11 runners, while Los Angeles went scoreless in innings two through nine for the second consecutive game. The Dodgers have put up zeros in 34 of their last 36 innings at the plate.
"I don't complain about run support," said starting pitcher Josh Beckett, who has been effective, if not dominating, in his four starts in an LA uniform. He yielded just one run on seven hits and two walks, while striking out six in 5 1/3 innings.
"I know these guys are putting forth the effort," said Beckett, who threw 58-of-98 pitches for strikes. "I think they're getting good at bats. It's just we're running up against some pretty tough pitchers here lately."
Paco Rodriguez (0-1), a 2012 second-round draft pick out of the University of Florida, took the loss after walking Shane Robinson to begin the top of the seventh inning. Robinson eventually scored on Allen Craig's two-out single to right. Starter Lance Lynn (15-7) earned the win for St. Louis, striking out seven and yielding just one run on five hits in six innings for the Cardinals.
Mattingly shook up the Dodgers lineup before the game, inserting Andre Ethier in the No. 2 spot and moving Shane Victorino down to sixth. Both players recorded one single in four plate appearances, though Ethier walked as well. He'll apparently see plenty of at-bats against right-handed pitching from the two-hole.
Once again the Dodgers were left waiting for that big hit to arrive, with Adrian Gonzalez's first-inning RBI double and Hanley Ramirez's ninth-inning, two-out double serving as the team's only extra-base hits. Since homering in his first at-bat for LA on Aug. 25, Gonzalez has produced six extra-base hits — five doubles and a triple — in his last 69 at-bats.
This team-wide offensive malaise compounds the pressure the Dodgers face as they fade back into obscurity.
With an impending roadtrip that will take them to division-leaders Washington and Cincinnati — the only two NL teams with a lower staff ERA than the Dodgers — the impetus to win now, to take all three remaining games of this homestand is glaring.
"We've got to stop worrying about what everybody else is doing and win games ourselves," Beckett said.
No pressure, guys.
"It's hard to not press when you're not able to put some runs on the board, and it's been a long-term thing," Mattingly said. "Basically, every day we're talking about it. So everyday they're having to answer it.
"The cycle doesn't get broken. It's just a continual question. Probably everywhere you go, you walk home, you're talking to your cousin or somebody's calling, it's like 'What's going on with you guys?' It's the same question that I've been answering I feel like for a couple weeks now. And it wears on you, honestly. But again, you've just got to get over it."
Should the offensive woes evaporate, the Dodgers will be a stronger, more weathered team for it. Enduring and gaining strength from adversity is of great benefit to any ballclub.
"If we're going to make some noise down the stretch, and if we're able to get in and have to play in a lot of big games, we're going to have to be able to relax and still play good baseball," Mattingly said. "These are things that as a player you have to deal with. It's pressure, it's part of it. It's major leagues. It's a pennant race. It's where we're at, and it's what you have to deal with. So if you can't deal with it, then we're not going to be good enough to do anything even if we get in."
NOTES: The Cool-A-Coo ice cream sandwich returned to Dodger Stadium for the first time since the late 1990's. Mattingly, on the dessert's $6 price tag, compared to a $12 beer: "Pretty good deal, right?" ... Left-handed reliever Scott Elbert will appear in a simulated game on Friday and barring any setbacks could rejoin the team next week. "If he's good, we'll probably roll with him," Mattingly said. ... Closer Kenley Jansen is also targeting the upcoming roadtrip for a potential return from an irregular heartbeat and will wait on clearance from the doctor on Friday as he looks to get off blood thinners. ... Ted Lilly had a simulated game scrapped and was scheduled to see a doctor Thursday night. "I know Teddy's been trying to push through and get ready. It starts to weigh the options of what's worth it," Mattingly said.