Challenging times for Dodgers

LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Dodgers are 4-1 against the San Diego Padres, 6-3 against the San Francisco Giants and 24-8 against the entire National League West this season. But the sobering reality is that as the Dodgers prepare to play 10 consecutive games against the two teams ahead of them in the standings, seven of them against the division-leading Padres, those accomplishments mean nothing.

Thanks to their inability to consistently beat teams from outside the division, the Dodgers are mired in third place, six games behind the Padres and, through Sunday, three behind the Giants. If one didn't know better, one might be tempted to call this the most critical stretch of the Dodgers' season.

"It's too early for that," manager Joe Torre said. "There are too many games left. Even though we won't be playing each other all the time, they could lose five in a row or we could win five in a row."

Torre has a point. Sort of.

Even after this stretch, the Dodgers and Padres will meet six more times in September, as will the Dodgers and Giants. But at the same time, while it isn't late, it certainly isn't early. The first game in San Diego on Tuesday night will be the Dodgers' 100th of the season. The Padres come to Dodger Stadium for four games beginning next Monday night, and the third game of that series will be the Dodgers' 108th, which is a significant number because it represents the two-thirds mark.

In theory, there will still be time to make up ground even after that -- unless the Dodgers fall flat on their faces this week, the one thing they simply can't afford to do.

Torre refused to put a number on how many games the Dodgers need to win during this stretch.

"I can't do that because you never know what that number is," Torre said. "Sure, you would like to go [to San Diego] and sweep them. It's time for us to put something together and make a statement, not necessarily for anybody else but for us. That is the only way we can get our confidence up to the point of going out and expecting good things to happen.

"We're capable of doing that. We've done it before."

The Dodgers swept the Padres in their only previous visit to Petco Park, May 14-16, and they did it by shutting down a Padres offense that, frankly, isn't that difficult to shut down. Burdened by one of baseball's most spacious, pitcher-friendly ballparks, the Padres entered Sunday tied for 12th in the National League in hitting (.253), 11th in runs, 13th in home runs, 12th in on-base percentage and 14th in slugging.

By contrast, the Padres led the majors in team ERA at 3.28 and had held opposing hitters to a major league-best .238 average. Of the three pitchers they will throw at the Dodgers this week -- Jon Garland, Clayton Richard and Mat Latos -- not one has an ERA higher than Garland's 3.61. Latos' is a stellar 2.48.

The Dodgers outlasted the Padres in the opener of that earlier series at Petco, overcoming a mediocre performance by the long-forgotten Ramon Ortiz with five shutout innings from their bullpen in a 4-3 win. Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley then dominated the Padres in the next two, as the Dodgers won 4-1 and 1-0.

The Padres came north for two more later that week, again lighting up Ortiz on May 19 for their only win over the Dodgers this season before Kershaw had his way with them once more in a Dodgers win on May 20.

Despite Torre's unwillingness to say how many games the Dodgers need to win, they probably need to take five of these seven against the Padres. Aside from what happens next weekend, when the Dodgers play in San Francisco and the Padres host Florida, that would give them a net gain of three games on the Padres in the standings. Winning just four of the seven would give the Dodgers a net gain of just one game, leaving them still five games behind the Padres depending on what happens against the Giants.

Anything less than four wins and the Dodgers probably are in serious trouble. If they find themselves as many as seven games out with 53 to play, which is exactly how many games the Dodgers will have remaining after these seven with the Padres, well, that might have an insurmountable feeling to it.

If nothing else, the Dodgers know exactly what is at stake.

"I don't think there is anything I have to tell these players," Torre said. "Nobody is going to get on that bus for San Diego not knowing where they are going, and we'll certainly be ready to play. We have to play every game. We had success against them earlier down there. We know they're going to pitch really well, so it's all going to come down to how well we pitch. We haven't scored a lot of runs lately. Two, two, one and three [plus one Sunday] isn't a lot of runs. But I don't think this is a bad time to play these guys.

"It's a time when we're going to find out if we can respond to a challenge. We have been able to do that the last couple of years when we have played in our own division. Hopefully, we can continue to do that."

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.