LOS ANGELES -- For contending clubs, baseball's annual trading deadline is a time of anticipation and excitement, a sort of Christmas in July if you will, as they find out what reinforcements are coming for the final two-month push toward what they hope will be a championship. For teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers, though, it represents a crossroads of sorts, one that often is complicated by the emotional fallout of losing a popular teammate such as Rafael Furcal.
It is now, with two-thirds of the schedule still ahead, that such teams have a chance to define themselves. Are they the type of club that says to heck with it, starts looking forward to a long winter vacation and simply plays out the string? Or are they the type of team that lays out goals for itself, that plays for pride, that shoots for as many wins as it can salvage and looks forward to the occasional chance to play spoiler or perhaps even move up a place or two in the standings?
Well, according to pretty much everyone who was asked after Sunday's game, a 6-3 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks before 43,935 at Dodger Stadium, Furcal wasn't the only thing missing. Because when he accepted a trade to the St. Louis Cardinals and left, he apparently took the Dodgers' get-up-and-go with him.
"Today was a disappointing day for me," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "I didn't feel like there was a lot of energy out there. ... To be honest, this was really the first day I have felt this way. Is it the deadline? Is it [rookie right-hander Rubby De La Rosa throwing] 100 pitches by the fourth inning? Is it a day game after we have played all night games on the homestand? I don't know. ... [But] it's something I'll want to talk about."
Mattingly said he probably won't hold a team meeting specifically to discuss the issue, that the pregame breakout meetings to go over scouting reports that always accompany the first game of a series will offer him a perfect chance on Monday in San Diego to address it in one room with pitchers and catchers and in another with the infielders and outfielders.
When he does, Mattingly can expect to be greeted with a lot of heads nodding in agreement.
"I would agree … there was a lack of energy," infielder Jamey Carroll said. "You feel that when you have the coaching staff trying to get us more into the game and when you look out and see the kind of effort we had."
Carroll declined to speculate as to the reason for it, and so did Matt Kemp.
"I think the energy was a little low," Kemp said. "I can't exactly tell you why, but we can't let this happen. We can't afford to have a lack of energy in any games. We definitely need to pick it up and figure things out."
The Dodgers actually mounted a late rally, scoring once in the eighth and once in the ninth, and they had two runners on when Andre Ethier, who to that point had gone 4-for-4 with four singles, flied out to right to end the game. But De La Rosa (4-5) put them in an early hole, and he did it in a way that had the seven fielders behind him back on their heels. He lasted just four innings, walked four batters and threw 103 pitches, and the Diamondbacks built a 3-0 lead against him on an afternoon when the Dodgers might already have been reeling from Furcal's departure anyway.
"I think today was the first game where we just had a lack of energy," Tony Gwynn said. "We tried to muster some at the end, but not until then. That is our responsibility. Even if we're not scoring runs, we have to find a way to have energy and fight through things. Sometimes, it's just a matter of night game/day game, but that is part of the job."
The timing of it all was notable. Before the game, I asked Mattingly what the Dodgers' focus would be for the rest of the year, with Furcal gone, the season apparently having been written off even if no one will say it and the Dodgers (49-59) still mired in fourth place in the National League West, 12 1/2 games behind the division-leading San Francisco Giants.
His answer was long and somewhat rambling, but it made complete sense.
"I think I'm always evaluating," he said. "You're always trying to say, 'Hey, which of these guys do we feel like can stay focused and compete for a championship [in the future]. I think you're evaluating that, and you want to continue to see who is going to play hard. We'll find out. And hopefully, we can keep creeping up on teams.
"The sidebar is you just want to get better. You want guys to keep improving individually. Is Rubby going to keep getting better? Are our young bullpen guys going to show they can continue to take steps forward and not just be a temporary thing?
"But at the same time, we're going to ask guys to play to win every day and see how that pans out over the next two months."
A few hours later, when Diamondbacks lefty Joe Saunders (8-8) had dominated them over 7 2/3 effective innings on a day when the Dodgers appeared all too willing to be dominated, Mattingly had begun to get an answer to all those questions.
So far, it isn't the one he was looking for.
"The guys did keep playing and battled in the ninth to get closer in the game, but there was no real moral victory in that," he said. "Day by day, in general, you have to continue to play with a purpose. It could be a long end of the season if we don't play with purpose."
The first day of that long end of the season is Monday, when Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw takes the mound against Padres lefty Cory Luebke. And while that purpose might be radically different from what it was back on opening day, the Dodgers, in case they hadn't noticed, still have one. They will get a reminder of that from Mattingly, possibly in a stern, forceful tone, before they take the field at Petco Park.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.