For Dodgers, hope = 162 games

On Friday, July 30, 1982, the Dodgers took the field at Fulton County Stadium against the first-place Atlanta Braves in their 102nd game of the year.

They were 10 games out of first in the NL West.

Remembers Ron Cey: "We had a Friday twi-night doubleheader in Atlanta, followed by a day game on Saturday, and a day game on Sunday. We're down 6-1 in the (fifth) inning of the first game of the doubleheader. We won that game. We won the second game of the doubleheader, and then on Saturday and Sunday. Then we came home and won two of three (against Cincinnati), and here comes Atlanta again. It was just fate. We have them on back-to-back weekends -- back-to-back four-game weekends! -- and we pretty much tore them apart. Thursday, we should have lost. A guy made an error, and the door opened, and there you go. We win, then win Friday night, and again Saturday and Sunday. Less than two weeks, we had made up 10 games and were sitting on the doorstep."

Baseball is, in many ways, the ultimate laboratory for pop psychology.

The season is 162 games, each of which matters in the standings, but does any single game stand as a make-or-break game in any real sense of the phrase? It's a game of trends. A series, a week, a month, and even the most successful stretches are still steeped in failure from moment to moment and require -- depending on the situation -- either selective memory or selective amnesia.

Thursday night's 5-0 loss to the first-place Padres will require plenty of the latter.

One night after blowing up for nine runs, the Dodgers were shut out by San Diego's Kevin Correia and four relievers. Not exactly a surprise -- the Dodgers are batting .218 as a team since the All-Star break and have scored two runs or fewer in 11 of their last 15 games.

For anyone seeking signs the 2010 season won't end well for L.A., Thursday's game glowed neon.

Still, even while acknowledging its importance, Casey Blake refused to overstate the significance of the loss. "It's just one game. It's not the season. It's not like that game right there was make-or-break for the season," he said. "We needed to win all the games, but I thought we had a chance to win tonight and could have taken three of four. We still play them many times and have a lot of games in our division."

Thirty, to be specific. Including six games each against Sans Diego and Francisco, the teams leading the division and wild-card races, respectively. They also have six against Philadelphia, another team ahead of them in the wild-card hunt. Enough games to change things, for sure.

For a team limping into the season's final third, knowledge the schedule still provides opportunity is one of the more tangible mental life rafts available, because it's true.

The Dodgers took the field Aug. 1 against the Giants seven games out of first. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, since 1995 five teams have overcome deficits of that size in the final two months of the season to win their division. That doesn't account for teams erasing gaps to earn wild-card berths.

Joe Torre says he's seen glimpses of a team showing up at the park with the expectation of winning, but the Dodgers haven't done enough of it lately to make the feeling habitual. In the meantime, players try too hard to be catalysts for positive change. "It's just a matter of determination and making sure that you -- and I've used this expression -- be intense without being tense. It's a very fine line. Pressure is part of the game, tension shouldn't be. I've seen the tense part from a lot of guys."

Maintaining belief over 162 games is hard, notes Andre Either. "Sometimes it's tough when it's up and down," he says. "In all aspects of the game it's [hard to sustain faith]. Hitting-wise, you go through ups and downs and it's tough to keep that same confidence. I would imagine that as a team it is. Teams go through those stretches."

And they come out of them, too. Asked if he believes the Dodgers still have a push left in them, Blake nods. "Oh yeah, for sure." Fortunes, he notes, can change quickly.

In 2007, the Colorado Rockies won 13 of their final 14 games to force a one-game playoff for the NL wild card. They won and would push through to the World Series despite spending a grand total of one day in first place over the course of the season.

Skeptics look at the Dodgers and see too many holes. Rafael Furcal is banged up again. Manny Ramirez can't shake his bad calf. Russell Martin may be a disappointment offensively, but he's better than the combination of A.J. Ellis and Brad Ausmus. Torre has praised his "bite-and-scratch" guys up and down over the last few days, but there's only so much Jamey Carroll, literally and conceptually, can do to lift a team with even the strongest belief in its talent.

Meanwhile, the lack of run support has squandered a run of incredibly -- and likely unsustainable -- good pitching over 21 games since the All Star break. Heading into Thursday's loss, Dodgers starters had a 2.65 ERA and held opponents to a .228 batting average. Overall, the staff numbers were 3.50 and .235.

A staff that good shouldn't have a 7-14 record for its troubles.

The Dodgers were 2½ games back of first July 15; they are now are eight games out in the NL West and chasing three teams. Things aren't much better in the wild-card race, where they've got six games to make up but four teams to leapfrog.

"As long as there are enough games left to make up the distance in however far you're back, there's still hope. We've got to just play well, and can't be watching that number," Ethier says.

"Things can happen in this game," says Blake.

Like this group putting together the type of rally required to pass teams in front of it that simply appear better. Stranger things have happened, and will happen again.

Though they usually don't.

In 2008, tied for first on Aug. 19, the Dodgers lost 10 of 11 and dropped 4½ games in the NL West standings over 11 days. Over the next 14, L.A. won 12 of 13 games to take a 4½ game lead in the division, a lead they never relinquished.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter if I, or most Dodgers fans, believe the Blue will be playing in October (fortunately for them), nor can belief fully compensate for a shortage of requisite talent. For the players, faith the prize is still in play matters. "It's hugely important," Torre says.

Particularly for a squad with little margin for error. Optimism, however Panglossian, is one more of the tools athletes use to make theirs, even if not ideal, as close to the best of all possible worlds. The sheer volume of games in a major league season keeps the flame alive, especially in the wild-card era. And whatever edge faith is worth, the Dodgers can't afford to give it away.

Even if it just distracts from the inevitable.

Brian Kamenetzky is a reporter for ESPNLosAngeles.com