LOS ANGELES -- When it comes to baseball's league-wide celebration of Jackie Robinson Day, the Los Angeles Dodgers tend to outdo all other clubs, as well they should.
Although their pregame ceremony Friday night was a bit understated compared to previous years, having Don Newcombe throw out the ceremonial first pitch to Matt Kemp was a poignant moment, and the decision by Kemp and left fielder Tony Gwynn to wear their uniform pants baggy and cinched just below the knee, the way Robinson is always seen wearing them in all those old black-and-white photos, was a fitting tribute.
But if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, well, the flattery pretty much ended once the real first pitch was thrown.
During Robinson's decade-long career with the old Brooklyn Dodgers, the team went to the World Series six times. The performance the Dodgers delivered against the St. Louis Cardinals -- one that ultimately led them to their fourth consecutive defeat, this time 11-2 before 36,282 at Dodger Stadium -- offered little reason to believe this team will get anywhere close to a World Series any time soon.
The primary storyline coming in was the season debut of Jon Garland, who had pushed hard to start Sunday at San Diego but ultimately, reluctantly, acquiesced to the wishes of club officials who wanted him to make one minor league rehabilitation start first. Garland hadn't been especially good in that rehab start for Class A Rancho Cucamonga, but he had experienced no issues with his left oblique, and that was the important thing.
This time, though, the fact Garland wasn't especially good was the important thing.
Although the Dodgers went to spring training with all kinds of questions, especially about their ability to score runs, the one thing they felt they could count on was their starting pitching. The main reason they felt that way was it was so deep that Garland, a proven veteran and former All-Star, was in the fifth spot.
Against the Cardinals, though, Garland just looked like a fifth starter.
In his defense, Garland did get an assist in his ineptitude when, in the second inning, he was called for a costly balk. Appropriately enough, the first balk of Garland's career, in his 2,031st inning, on a move Garland said he had done countless times before, was called by second-base umpire Angel Hernandez. The ruling was that Garland turned his shoulders to look at first base before going into the stretch.
"He said I was going forward," Garland said. "I have been doing that my whole career."
"It's one of those things where you can't really go on the field to question," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said, referring to a rule prohibiting managers from leaving the dugout to argue ball, strike or balk calls. "I know [pitching coach Rick Honeycutt] looked at it [on video] and didn't see anything."
Garland has been around too long to get rattled by such a thing, so to say Hernandez's curious call caused him to unravel would be inaccurate.
"[But] that cost us a run right there," Dodgers catcher Rod Barajas said. "The pitcher is up there trying to bunt. Even if he does bunt, there are two men out, and we have a chance to get out of that inning right there. I don't think it affected [Garland], but we had a real chance to get out of that inning."
And as for the call itself?
"For me, it's not a balk," Barajas said. "You're allowed to check the runner at first by turning your shoulders until you get into the set position."
At any rate, by the time Garland was lifted one batter into the fifth -- his final line would show five earned runs and nine hits over four-plus innings -- the Dodgers (6-8) were well on their way to another lifeless-looking defeat and to falling into a last-place tie with the Arizona Diamondbacks in the National League West, 5 1/2 games behind a division-leading Colorado Rockies team that doesn't look as if it will be caught by any team any time soon.
It might be early, but it already appears to be getting late for these Dodgers. And it will take a lot more than hiking up their pants like Jackie Robinson did to turn that around.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.