LOS ANGELES -- Baseball's best team rolled into Dodger Stadium on Monday night. So did a harsh dose of reality.
For all their recent resilience, for all the flirting with respectability they have done over the past month, for all the optimistic pronouncements by first baseman James Loney last weekend that there is no reason they can't still climb the mountain that now stands between them and a playoff berth, the Los Angeles Dodgers were quickly exposed.
Against a team like the Philadelphia Phillies, which stuck them with a 5-3 loss in front of 35,380 -- most of whom seemed to be wearing red and blue and rooting for the visitors -- in a game that was far more lopsided than the box score will reflect, the Dodgers were completely overmatched at the plate by two-time Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay, who had all the run support he would need by the top of the second inning.
The Dodgers had seen the Phillies before. Beaten them, even, on June 7, when the Dodgers already appeared worthy of being written off but still managed to take the middle game of a series at Citizens Bank Park. But they hadn't seen these all-but-unbeatable Phillies. These Phillies who have won 17 of 23 since the All-Star break. These Phillies who have a comfortable 3½-game lead -- not on their own division but on every other team in the majors.
These Phillies who simply aren't the type of team the Dodgers, their recent improvement notwithstanding, can really hang with.
"They seem to be running on all cylinders right now," Dodgers left fielder Tony Gwynn said. "The top of their order is tough. We kept the middle of their lineup somewhat quiet. But when those two guys at the top of the order are working like that, it makes it really tough, because those guys behind them know how to play the game pretty well."
Jimmy Rollins, the Phillies' veteran leadoff man, went just 1-for-4, but his hit was a two-run double that made it 3-0 in the second inning, which basically meant he had blown the game open. Two-hole hitter Shane Victorino -- remember him, the guy the Dodgers let get away twice in the Rule 5 draft a few years ago? -- went 3-for-5 with two doubles and a ninth-inning home run that drove in the final nail after a valiant comeback attempt by the Dodgers in the eighth.
Victorino seemed destined for that homer, even on an evening when the Dodgers managed nine hits (all singles) off Halladay.
The Dodgers are a team that is literally bankrupt. The Phillies are almost an embarrassment of riches, having recently bolstered their already dangerous lineup with a trading-deadline acquisition of right fielder Hunter Pence, and with their already stacked rotation having gotten yet another boost from the quick blossoming of rookie Vance Worley. They have a once-perfect closer now working as their setup man, the best saves percentage in the majors (91.9) and by far the stingiest team ERA (3.06).
The Dodgers have a roster that has Eugenio Velez on it.
"I have always been of the school that you're not supposed to covet another man's wife," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said, when asked whether he feels envious of the Phillies with all their talent. "But yeah, they have a good club over there. They have that pitching staff, they have guys with experience, and they have a good mixture of speed and power guys. But we can't look at their club. We have to look at our club and keep trying to get better and get into a position where we're going to get guys like that on our club."
The Dodgers fought. That is their modus operandi these days, to play hard for 27 outs, and it came tantalizingly close to paying off this time when they got the tying run to third base with two outs in the eighth inning after Halladay had left the game. But other than the occasional, aberrational game in which their frustration has gotten the best of them, they have fought all year, and look where it has gotten them.
The Dodgers (52-62) fell back into fourth place in the National League West, 10 games behind the division-leading San Francisco Giants. If they were in the NL East, though, they would trail the Phillies by 22½.
Who knows, the Dodgers may find a way to sneak a game in this series too, a tall order with another former Cy Young winner, Cliff Lee, awaiting them on Tuesday night, followed by Worley in Wednesday's matinee finale. But it shouldn't come as any surprise if they don't, because this series is an utter mismatch -- a fact that wouldn't be nearly so sad if not for the fact that it wasn't that long ago when these teams were squaring off in back-to-back National League Championship Series.
The first of those, in 2008, appeared to be just as lopsided until Hiroki Kuroda turned in a masterful performance to get the Dodgers, momentarily at least, back into that series. They ultimately would lose in five, then lose in five again in 2009, but the fact that they were there seemed to suggest this team stood on the precipice of a long run of success.
These days, only the Phillies are on a sustained run of success, and while Kuroda (7-14) was adequate over 6 1/3 innings and suffered from his usual lack of run support in this one, it didn't much matter. He didn't figure to get much run support anyway against Halladay (15-4), who wasn't as sharp as we have come to expect but was sharp enough. So was that Phillies bullpen, with Ryan Madson finishing off the Dodgers for his 20th save.
Watching all those Phillies fans stream out of the ballpark, it dawned on me that for the most part, these are people who fully expect their team to win the World Series this year, people who will be profoundly disappointed if the Phillies don't.
Contrast that with Dodgers fans, whose best hope for now is a resolution -- however far off -- to the bankruptcy, followed by a change of ownership. Only then can the rebuilding process truly begin, and that process figures to take years.
It is a tough thing, but it is reality. And if all those Phillies fans waltzed in and took over the place, well, Dodgers fans aren't really using those seats much these days anyway. Let them enjoy themselves. They, after all, are blessed with a product that is meant to be enjoyed, to be savored, to be flaunted in the faces of others who are stuck rooting for teams not nearly as talented, as experienced or as confident.
And right now, that means fans of nearly every other team in baseball.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.