LOS ANGELES -- Sunday was Faith and Family Day at Dodger Stadium. After the game, a listless 7-2 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers that left the Los Angeles Dodgers on the wrong side of a three-game sweep, fans filled a few sections of seats behind the home dugout for live music and the chance to hear Clayton Kershaw, A.J. Ellis, Scott Van Slyke, and Adrian Gonzalez speak about the importance of faith in their lives.
Insofar as the Dodgers and the Church of Baseball are concerned, the timing felt appropriate.
On the heels of a great road trip in which they won six of nine in Anaheim, Milwaukee and Atlanta, the Dodgers fell flat this weekend, dropping their record at Chavez Ravine to 30-30 and letting the San Francisco Giants creep to within 3 1/2 games of first in the NL West. All this came after leading their rivals by six games less than a week ago.
Dan Haren, bad in June and a raging grease fire in July, allowed five hits, three walks and six runs (three earned) in only three innings Sunday after consecutive quality starts gave the impression he might be turning a corner.
The Dodgers offense, which entered the day with the sixth-most hits in baseball but only 12th in runs and arguably first in paper-talent-to-inconsistency (PTI to the analytics crowd), was shut down by Brewers right-hander Wily Peralta. Peralta allowed only five hits over six innings en route to his 15th win of the year. Overall, Milwaukee limited the Dodgers to seven runs in the series.
On the other hand, the Dodgers are still 15 games over .500. They have been in first place for the past 24 days and will be in first place again tomorrow and on Tuesday, when the San Diego Padres arrive for the first of three, and on Friday when the New York Mets come to town. Overall, 17 of their next 20 are against teams with losing records, and 26 of their final 37 games are inside their division, where they’ve dominated (32-18).
Uribe, Ramirez, and Ryu are all expected to be fine, physically. Clayton Kershaw still exists. Yasiel Puig has taken nicely to center field. There even is optimism about ailing Josh Beckett, as the team isn’t ruling out his return by season’s end.
The Dodgers are a legitimate World Series contender, just not so good as to avoid creeping doubt and concern.
“At this time of year, it’s going to be hard to win games. For everybody. Every team you play is dangerous. San Diego is playing well. You just come ready to play,” said Dodgers manager Don Mattingly. “I know I’ve said that so many times, but it’s [true]. You get ready to play, and you play.
“You can’t worry about yesterday. This game is gone, this series is gone for us. This stretch of games is gone for us. You can’t worry about two weeks from now who we’re going to be playing against.”
A 162-game season almost guarantees fluctuations in performance. Between July 25 and the start of the series with the Brewers, the Dodgers jumped from 10 games above .500 to 17 games over and, in the process, beat up the Giants, Braves and Angels -- playoff contenders, all. The questions aimed at Mattingly during that stretch were as optimistic and complimentary as they were somber and concerned following Sunday’s loss, he noted.
Getting to the playoffs is difficult business. Winning there is even tougher. The Dodgers are in that strange space where, despite having six weeks of regular season play remaining, virtually everything they do is viewed through the prism of October.
Things that are important now -- quality performances from the back end of the rotation, for example -- won’t matter nearly as much in the postseason, because those guys might pitch once in a series. Big performances offensively against weaker pitchers on lousy teams steer the ship where it needs to go, but it’s fair to worry about L.A.’s inability to beat Milwaukee, who won five of six against the Dodgers in the season series, outscoring them 30-14 in the process.
Having said that, Mattingly pointed to how poorly the his team played against Atlanta in the regular season last season, losing 5 of 7 , before the Dodgers beat the Braves in the National League Division Series.
Clichés are clichés, in part because they’re true. Fans and media can play a day or two weeks or a month ahead. Players can’t. On any given day, the gap between the best teams and the worst isn’t necessarily large, and records can’t necessarily be trusted.
“It’s usually pitching. The teams that aren’t able to keep up are the teams that don’t have the depth, that don’t have that pitching day in and day out,” Mattingly said.
And just in case anyone expected a cakewalk for L.A. this week against the Padres, Mattingly was quick to note the quality of their pitchers, who entered Sunday’s action tied for second in baseball in team ERA.
Over the course of a season, though, Mattingly believes teams find their proper spot in the standings. Based on the evidence to this point, the Dodgers are in great position to finish where everyone thinks they should.
Getting there just requires a little faith.