Dodgers can't afford get-away hiccups

PHOENIX -- Before Sunday's game here, the possibility existed that by the time the Los Angeles Dodgers left town Sunday evening, they could be within eight games of first place in the National League West.

Well, the Dodgers aren't within eight games of the division lead. And as they boarded their flight home after a 4-3 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks, they probably weren't feeling all that great about themselves.

In a normal year, this trip would have been considered an unqualified success, the Dodgers having won four of six and gone into the finale of each series, one in San Diego and one here, with a chance to sweep. In a normal year, Clayton Kershaw coughing up a one-run lead in the seventh inning -- on a two-run homer by light-hitting infielder Cody Ransom on Kershaw's 110th pitch of the afternoon -- could be chalked up as nothing more than a one-game hiccup by a bona-fide ace.

But hiccups like these are what the Dodgers can't afford. Because they played so badly over the season's first four months, they no longer have that luxury.

"It could have been 5-1, but it wasn't," Kershaw said. "We'll take it, but it definitely could have been better."

At a point when much of the world has stopped paying attention, the Dodgers have been playing over their heads for a while now. Beginning July 7, when they salvaged the finale of a four-game series with the New York Mets to avoid a sweep, the Dodgers have won 15 of 25. Since changing hitting coaches on July 20, their offense has shown signs of life and they have won nine of 15.

All well and good, but the real story of this season is what happened before that, the result of which is that every defeat now is a kick to the gut, especially defeats like this one that come after a late-inning lead gets away. So don't talk to the Dodgers about having good trips or winning series.

"We had a chance to have a great trip," manager Don Mattingly said. "We ended up having a good one."

Besides leaving them tied for third place, 10 games behind the division-leading San Francisco Giants, the finale also sapped the Dodgers (52-61) of whatever momentum they had heading into a three-game series with the Philadelphia Phillies, the best team in baseball record-wise and probably talent-wise as well.

"We are at a point where we can't look at trips so much," Mattingly said. "We're trying to win every day. Early in the year, you might say, 'Well, it was a good trip.' But when you get a chance to sweep a club you're chasing and you have your best guy out there, I think this is a little bit of a downer. Again, we're kind of day to day."

In fairness to Kershaw (13-5), he was matched up against the other team's ace, as he so often seems to be, and he wasn't at his best. But he did recover from a rough start, and the Dodgers did scratch out three runs in the fifth and sixth innings off Ian Kennedy (14-3) to stake Kershaw to a 3-2 lead, so this was one that got away. The Dodgers, rejuvenated offense or not, saw their final nine batters go down in order against Kennedy and relievers David Hernandez and J.J. Putz, who closed it out for his 26th save.

Was it a good trip? The answer is that it doesn't matter, because it wasn't a good day, and the days ahead, when the Dodgers will have to deal with former Cy Young Award winners Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee and then rookie sensation Vance Worley, don't figure to be that great either. But if nothing else, this team does emit a better vibe than it did, say, a month ago, when all hope seemed to be lost.

To the objective observer, all hope still seems to be lost. But at least the Dodgers are a little more entertaining to watch these days. And to hear first baseman James Loney tell it after a game in which he hit his first home run in almost two months, they are a little more entertaining to play for, too.

"I feel like guys are happy every day," he said. "It doesn't matter if you go 0-4 or lost the game before, we're coming to the park thinking we're going to beat you today. … I feel a sense that we can win this thing."

Before bursting into laughter, consider this: the baseball adage goes that if you are within five games of first place on Sept. 1, you have a chance, meaning the Dodgers have only to make up four games in the next 24 days, and they already have made up 4 1/2 over the past 19. But in this case, I'll take common sense over mathematical possibilities and continue to live under the assumption the Dodgers are toast for 2011.

If nothing else, though, this team has found a way to keep the attention of whoever is still giving them any, especially at a time when we are able to get such a wide glimpse at what might be a promising future after all. Dee Gordon, once he returns from a slight shoulder injury, has the shortstop job for the rest of the year. Another rookie, Javy Guerra, already is the closer and could be for years to come. Nathan Eovaldi, who could be in next year's starting rotation, is now in this year's rotation, probably for the rest of the season.

What's more, these games seem to have meaning again. A team that as recently as a month ago seemed to be going through the motions and playing out the string seems to have gotten back to taking these losses hard.

The Dodgers suffered a devastating defeat to cap off this otherwise-solid trip. But the only thing worse than a devastating defeat is an indifferent one, and for now at least, the Dodgers appear to have put those behind them.

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