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Wednesday, October 3, 2012
Coming together is the hardest part

By Mark Saxon

Matt Kemp
Matt Kemp slams his bat after striking out to end a scoring threat in the seventh inning.

LOS ANGELES -- They had power. They had pitching. They had veteran poise.

They had a feeling of togetherness and a unity of purpose.

They had it all ... for about a week. The team they thought they had showed up in the dwindling days of a pennant race to turn what might have been a drab march to the end into a frantic and exciting scramble for the postseason.

Too bad it didn't happen a month earlier, three weeks earlier, maybe even a day earlier. A 4-3 loss to the San Francisco Giants on Tuesday night eliminated the Los Angeles Dodgers from the chase for a wild-card playoff spot.

The Dodgers essentially spent a month renovating their team between July 25 and Aug. 25, taking on more than $400 million in contract obligations and putting in a bulk order on new name plates. For the next month, it was a flop, the Dodgers going 10-17 after Adrian Gonzalez hit that three-run home run in his first at-bat as a Dodger.

And then, suddenly, they were a team. They were that team. Manager Don Mattingly sat them down -- had a few harsh words of his own and coaxed some out of them -- in a let-it-all-out meeting in San Diego. For the next week, they shadowed the St. Louis Cardinals' every move, nearly making Game 162 a decisive, thrilling bit of theater.

But here's the problem with waiting so late to make your move: One stumble and you're done.

Mark Ellis "just got excited," according to Mattingly in trying to stretch his seventh-inning double Tuesday night into a triple and that proved the difference -- maybe in the game, maybe in the season, who knows? If they play up to their capabilities, one baserunning gaffe doesn't pop their bubble.

If he didn't believe in it before, Mattingly became an apostle of clubhouse chemistry after watching his team coalesce at about the pace a glacier scours a mountain valley. When the Dodgers opened the doors to their clubhouse 15 minutes after the game, there was a dead stillness in the room, virtually every player seated at their stall in silence.

The new owners were crowded into a corner of Mattingly's office.

"If you walk in that room out there, there was huge disappointment," Mattingly said. "If you've got guys who don't care, it wouldn't be like that."

The Dodgers reduced a 162-game schedule into a high-school season by making their biggest move so late. By the time Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Nick Punto walked in the door -- fresh off a charter flight from Boston -- the Dodgers had only 35 games left in their season. When you make a trade on July 31, you're uncertain what the results will be. When you make it on Aug. 25, you blink and it's over.

If they're as good as they think they are, next season will be a truer test, but this first glimpse of the new look was a colossal disappointment.

"I'd take my chances against any team right now," Ellis said. "Hopefully, this is something that can carry over into next year, but I don't know why it took so long. No idea."

There were rumblings of dissent in the clubhouse. It's not so much that guys didn't like each other -- at least as far as we know -- but that they didn't know each other. Sometimes, that was in tangible ways. Ellis and Hanley Ramirez looked awkward at times turning double plays. A.J. Ellis had to tax his already-exhausted brain learning how Beckett likes his catcher to call a game.

But what they really needed to work on was caring about one another. At least that's the impression you get.

"There are a lot of intangibles that go into a team firing on all cylinders," pitcher Chris Capuano said. "We had a team meeting in San Diego and everyone just spoke their mind and got everything out, and I think everyone kind of really responded after that and gave great effort."

Mattingly was hoping they'd allow Tuesday's disappointment and pain to push them in their winter workouts. Who knows, maybe it will even push them closer.