LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Dodgers' playoff hopes took a big, slow-motion punch with Sunday's 5-2 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in 12 innings.
It was nearly four-and-a-half hours of frustration for the Dodgers on so many levels, but one scenario stands out. They had the winning run at third base with one out in the 10th inning, but couldn't get Mark Ellis home. Shane Victorino grounded out to second and -- after the Cardinals intentionally walked Andre Ethier -- Matt Kemp, mired in a miserable slump, hit a lazy fly ball to center.
A win would have given the Dodgers three out of four in this crucial series, but instead they split and trail the Cardinals by a game for the second wild card -- with 15 games left. They are about to embark on their toughest road trip of the season (to Washington, Cincinnati and San Diego) while the Cardinals have nine straight games with the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs (combined 81 games under .500).
Settling in. Stephen Fife hadn't been on a major-league mound in six weeks. He hadn't been on any mound in 10 days. The lack of touch showed early, as he seemed to have no idea where the ball was going in the first inning. In the first five batters, Fife walked a guy, hit a guy, allowed a couple of hits and threw a wild pitch. After that, something clicked. He retired the next nine batters in order and gave the Dodgers more than they could have expected as a last-minute replacement for ace Clayton Kershaw. He struck out nine Cardinals in five innings and warranted another start or two, it would appear.
Sweet swing. Adam Wainwright made a lot of good pitches for the Cardinals on Sunday. The pitch he threw to Ethier is not among those. He threw it right into Ethier's happy zone, low and in, and Ethier golfed it over the right-field wall for a two-run home run that tied the game. Ethier sparked Saturday's winning rally with a two-out hit. He swings the bat well at Dodger Stadium, unlike many of his teammates. He has been helping keep things afloat while the other big bats slump.
League of his own. The Dodgers would be in so much worse shape right now if Brandon League hadn't returned to his 2011 form so suddenly. In fact, when Kenley Jansen comes back Tuesday, look for League to hold onto the closer role. He has been virtually impossible to hit, having pitched scoreless relief in 13 of his past 14 appearances. Don Mattingly asked him to go two innings Saturday and he did his thing again, getting six easy outs to set the Dodgers up for the win. They just couldn't score.
Easy doesn't do it. On the dry-erase board above Hanley Ramirez's locker stall, it says, "Effortless." At times, that seems to describe his work at shortstop. Don Mattingly has gradually downgraded his adjectives when describing Ramirez's work in the field. What started as "solid" has now become "all right." Imagine how a more-critical manager would describe it. Ramirez has been struggling badly in the field and it has proved costly at times. He let Pete Kozma's grounder go under his gloves for -- ahem -- a single with one out in the seventh. That prompted Mattingly to use an extra pitcher because left-handed hitter Jon Jay came up.
Mechanical issues. Before the game, Adrian Gonzalez said his swing has been "a wreck" all season. You could see what he meant as the game went along and he struggled to make good contact. It's not so much that Gonzalez hasn't been getting some hits here and there, but that he is unable to drive the ball with any consistency. Other than Matt Kemp, he is the key guy as the Dodgers struggle to get their offense going. Together, Kemp and Gonzalez went 1-for-10. Hard to win like that.
Circuit breaker. You see flashes of how disruptive Victorino can be, but they're just flashes. The Dodgers have been a bit frustrated by the lack of spark they're getting from Victorino at the top of the lineup. He is batting .232 as a Dodger and has more strikeouts, 26, than runs scored, 20, in 165 at-bats. It was a memorably bad day (0-for-6) for Victorino, who -- like a lot of the new guys -- just hasn't looked comfortable.