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In October, Missteps Are Magnified

Their return to glory was a return to gory.

Sixteen years after Bulldog, the Dodgers wandered through their playoff opener like lost pups.

Sixteen years after the Home Run, they were beaten by five of them.

Sixteen years after their last playoff victory, they walked into Busch Stadium on Tuesday like wide-eyed tourists, heads swiveling, fanny packs sagging.

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The thousands of flapping white towels surprised them.

The 1,935 feet worth of sucker punches shook them.

The repeated curtain calls steamed them.

And the final score embarrassed them, an 8-3 whipping by the St. Louis Cardinals, welcoming the Dodgers to the postseason with a handshake that brought them to their knees.

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“They were pretty impressive,” Shawn Green said with a sigh after the division series opener. “We got flat-out beat.”

It wasn’t that they lost -- the Cardinals have the best record in baseball, a dozen games better than the Dodgers, and are heavily favored to win this preliminary series before the end of the weekend.

It was how they lost -- by failing to do the sorts of little things that playoff baseball requires.

The Cardinals have more than twice as much postseason experience, and it showed, in everything from smart plate appearances to savvy pitching to aging Stan Musial, still able to throw out the first pitch.

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Said Cardinal Larry Walker, “My heart was pounding the whole game. It was a lot of fun.”

Said Dodger Milton Bradley, “It’s like we got down, and it wore on us.”

That so perfectly described a game the Dodgers might have lost almost before it started.

First inning, runners on first and second, 2-0 count on Shawn Green, all of it against Woody Williams, who gave up eight runs in three innings in his last start and maybe was just thinking ...

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Check that. Green swings on the next pitch, flies out to left, and ends the inning.

Playoff Rule No. 1: If you get a chance to score first, handle that chance like a valuable heirloom, because comebacks are much harder here.

“I really had a good chance there,” Green said. “I wish I had a better result.”

The Dodgers put guys on base with fewer than two out in each of the first three innings against Williams but could never knock ensuing pitches even out of the infield.

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“A couple of times, we had him on the ropes,” Jayson Werth said of Williams. “But we just could not get to him.”

Fast-forward to the third inning, the Dodgers trailing, 1-0, on Albert Pujols’ homer.

There are two out. Nobody on base. Pujols is on deck.

And Odalis Perez, his eyes perhaps wandering over there, throws a first-pitch hanging curveball to Larry Walker.

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The same Walker who looked awful in a first-inning strikeout and who had one hit in 16 previous at-bats against Perez.

Yeah, he was surprised to see the curveball too.

“It was hanging right up there, I had to swing at it,” he said, almost apologetically, after drilling it over the right-field fence for the first of his two homers.

The hit was so well-timed that Dodger pitching coach Jim Colborn wondered whether the Cardinals had figured out Perez’s pitches by watching his hand and glove.

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“You have to think maybe they were stealing the pitches,” he said.

Replied Walker, laughing, “If that’s the case, I wish I had picked that up 16 at-bats ago. And how come he didn’t say that after my first at-bat?”

What was stolen, it seemed, was Perez’s concentration. The first-inning homer by Pujols seemed to shake him into a cautiousness that he had not previously shown.

“That wasn’t the same Odalis Perez out there today,” Jose Lima said. “He wasn’t throwing the same way.”

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Playoff Rule No. 2: Don’t be distracted by earlier failures, because time is too short.

After that homer by Pujols, it was indeed as if Perez changed, became less aggressive, again later in the third inning against Jim Edmonds.

Yeah, the same Edmonds who had struck out earlier and was one for seven against Perez.

First pitch, fastball, two-run homer, game over before most L.A. fans had started their lunch breaks.

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See Playoff Rule No. 2.

“With those guys, as soon as you do something wrong, you’re gonna pay,” Perez said.

If the Dodgers didn’t know it before, they know it now.

Their margin for error is suddenly tighter than Jim Tracy’s haircut.

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They cannot wake up at 10 p.m., the way they did against Colorado. They will not survive fat pitches, as they did against San Diego. They won’t be nudged along by errors, as they were against San Francisco.

They are in a far more testing, treacherous place than at anytime during the last few weeks.

And 16 years is a very long time.

*

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Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.


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