PHOENIX — The clinching is slowly becoming a clenching.
The Dodgers are going to win a game that puts them in the playoffs, and it will probably happen this week, but at this rate the sounds of cork popping will be drowned out by teeth grinding.
For the fourth straight day their magic number is still four — and still apparently hiding somewhere up their sleeves — after a 2-1 loss to Arizona on Monday night in a game that was typified by the final out.
Remember Matt Kemp? In his first appearance in nearly two months after suffering through ankle and hamstring injuries, he came to the plate as a pinch-hitter with two out in the ninth inning and the tying run on third base and the go-ahead run on second.
Stop the presses? Nah, let them roll, the Dodgers’ narrative remaining unchanged as Kemp struck out flailing on four pitches.
It was an awkwardly fitting ending to a night that began with the Chase Field announcer happily intoning that it was 101 degrees outside, yet a comfortable 77 indoors.
At which point, the Diamondbacks management promptly opened the roof.
The once-cozy Dodgers are indeed slowly feeling an increasing heat upon their once-princely heads, their ninth loss in 12 games delaying their inevitable postseason assurance, threatening home-field advantage, and stirring up worry that this could all mean something even more.
Through the dead silence of the visitors’ clubhouse, the players could undoubtedly hear the media ask Manager Don Mattingly about his team’s recent slide. They probably didn’t hear his answer, as he delivered it with a weary wince.
“The games are hard to win when you see the finish line so close,” he said.
After sprinting through the middle of the race with an astounding 42 wins in 50 games, this team is now limping to that line. They will reach it, and they could still be one of the World Series favorites when they do, but only if they get healthy and productive again.
Their lineup Monday was the sort of same jumble puzzle that doomed the Dodgers to a 30-42 start this season.
No Hanley Ramirez (back). No Andre Ethier (ankle). A.J. Ellis batting fifth. A career prospect named Nick Buss playing left field.
What happened next was only one run, two blown rallies, and brilliance ruined as Hyun-Jin Ryu received nothing for eight innings of two-hit ball in a resurgent start for a guy who also may be running on fumes.
“You look at a lineup doesn’t have Hanley, doesn’t have Andre Ethier, the next thing you know, it’s what we’re doing early, guys are not in their spots,” said Mattingly. “You get guys in spots they’re not supposed to be in, you end up doing what you’re not supposed to do.”
A couple of those spots involved Ellis, the seemingly tired catcher who failed to produce with five guys on base. He has only 11 hits in his last 63 at-bats covering 29 games, giving him a .175 average with just three runs batted in over that time.
Then there’s Adrian Gonzalez, who struck out with a runner on second base in the first, flied out on the first pitch with the bases loaded and none out in the sixth, then flied out with a runner on first in the eighth, fouling a pitch to nullify an apparent stolen base by Dee Gordon in the process. Gonzalez had a nice first half, but his on-base plus slugging percentage is more than 70 points lower in the second half.
“Tonight goes into what I always think about September,” Mattingly said. “It’s hard to win games, I don’t care who you are or what’s going on.”
Mattingly joined his team under a postseason-type microscope in the ninth inning when, after pinch-hitter Michael Young and Skip Schumaker hit consecutive none-out singles, he ordered Juan Uribe — he of three homers in one game last week — to bunt. Uribe had only successfully sacrificed three times this year, and did not add to that total when he bounced a bunt back to pitcher Brad Ziegler, who threw easily to third to begin the thwarting of the rally.
Mattingly was asked, why bunt with a hot hitter, especially when that kid named Buss was on deck?
“Juan’s a good bunter, he just didn’t execute, for me, that’s the play there,” said Mattingly. “We’ve got a major leaguer on deck, I don’t worry about who it is.”
Buss, a 26-year-old career prospect who recently made his major league debut, then grounded out to first base, bringing up Kemp for the final mighty, and futile, swings.
“It feels good to finally compete, have the adrenaline rush, get that first at-bat out of the way,” Kemp said. “I’m going to try to get as many at-bats as I can, get back into the game, get my rhythm and see where it takes me.”
Make no mistake, no matter what the Dodgers are doing now, their journey is going to take them to the postseason for the first time in four years. With the recent injuries and ineffectiveness, the growing concern is suddenly how long they will stay there.