Production issue apparent for Dodgers

SAN FRANCISCO -- As the ball disappeared into the chilly Bay Area night, so, basically, did all hope for the Los Angeles Dodgers. It was a scene that perfectly illustrated what has become a growing concern for this club, one that could ultimately define the Dodgers' season if a solution isn't found fairly quickly.

It was the bottom of the sixth inning of Wednesday night's game, a 4-3 loss to the San Francisco Giants before a sellout crowd of 42,060 at AT&T Park, and Giants second baseman Mike Fontenot, who wasn't even added to the starting lineup until just before game time, had just deposited a pitch from Ted Lilly into the narrow strip of stands in straightaway right field. The solo blast broke a tie that had existed since Pablo Sandoval also had gone deep against Lilly earlier in the same inning.

"Two swings of the bat, and we're behind," Lilly said.

It was the bottom of the sixth inning. But for the Dodgers, it was basically lights out.

This isn't a team that plays well from behind, especially in the late innings. This isn't a team that is well equipped to overcome a deficit -- even of one run -- when the opposing manager is playing chess with the back end of his bullpen. Not with its leadoff man, Rafael Furcal, on the disabled list for at least the next month. Not with two guys who normally hit fifth and sixth in the order, Juan Uribe and James Loney, both hitting well below .200. Not with a team batting average of .178 for the season with runners in scoring position, including strikeouts in all four such at-bats in this game.

It isn't that the Dodgers are dead the minute the other team scores a run. They can come back early, as they did when Rod Barajas slammed a two-run homer off a previously dominating Jonathan Sanchez (1-1) in the fourth to tie the score. But a lead that gets away like the one Lilly coughed up in that sixth? A big hit by the opposition in the latter, or even the middle, stages of a game that seemingly puts the Dodgers' backs against the wall?

In cases like those, forget about it.

In losing the final two games of this series and this eight-game trip, the Dodgers (6-6) -- who fell three games behind the Colorado Rockies and into a second-place tie with the Giants in the National League West -- fell behind for good in the seventh inning Tuesday and in the sixth inning Wednesday. After those points, in the two games combined, the Dodgers were 2-for-16 with seven strikeouts, and the only runner they got into scoring position got himself picked off second base.

As for the perfect ninth innings pitched in each of those games by Brian Wilson, the Giants' All-Star closer, the Dodgers sent the light-hitting likes of Xavier Paul, Tony Gwynn Jr., Jamey Carroll (twice), Aaron Miles and the horrifically slumping Loney to the plate.

Lilly (0-2), who hasn't looked quite right in any of his three starts this season, pointed the finger only at himself, saying, "The way I'm pitching right now, I'm putting a lot of pressure on us offensively." What he wouldn't say, but what appears rather obvious, is that the offense is putting a lot of pressure on the pitching staff, as well.

After the game, rookie manager Don Mattingly was asked if, after Fontenot's homer, even though the Dodgers trailed by only one run, he felt his team was facing an uphill battle.

"Not really," he said. "Not really."

Beyond adding that second "not really," Mattingly didn't elaborate. But then, he didn't really need to.

This Dodgers offense isn't completely impotent. Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp, the two players everyone knew would have to produce for this team to be competitive, have done so and then some. Ethier will bring a 10-game hitting streak and a .370 average into Thursday night's opener of an eight-game homestand against the St. Louis Cardinals. Kemp is hitting .425. Ethier and Kemp are hitting .462 and .455, respectively, with runners in scoring position.

But with the way the rest of the lineup is producing, it is becoming increasingly rare for Ethier or Kemp to even come to the plate with men in scoring position. Over the past two nights, at points when the Dodgers faced those ultimately decisive, one-run deficits, the two combined for one such plate appearance, Kemp coming up after a two-out double by Ethier in the seventh inning Tuesday. The result was an intentional walk, followed by an all-too-predictable, inning-ending groundout by Loney.

And so, following a trip on which the Dodgers lost five of eight and scored a total of 14 runs in the five defeats, Mattingly was asked to sum it up.

"We were pretty much in every game," he said. "We just weren't able to get over the hump the last two days. But we're OK." Then a pause. And then, as if to convince himself as much as anyone else in the room, he added one final word. "Yeah."

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.