LOS ANGELES -- Late Thursday afternoon, three hours before the first pitch of the biggest series of the Dodgers' season, Matt Kemp stood in the center of the Dodger Stadium locker room sweating through his blue undershirt, and guaranteed victory.
"We're winning this series," said Kemp, bobbing his head and flashing a smile. "And we're making the postseason for sure."
A hundred or so yards away in the visiting clubhouse, a more subdued but still jovial David Freese gripped a bat in front of his locker and considered the predicament his Cardinals were in: one game ahead of Los Angeles for the second wild-card spot with 19 left to play, including the four-game series against the Dodgers that started Thursday.
"We definitely prefer to be out in front," said Freese. "But anyone in this situation would be lying if they said they weren't looking over their shoulder."
And Freese wasn't talking only about Los Angeles. When the Cardinals' third baseman woke up Thursday morning, the left-for-dead Brewers and Phillies each were only three games back and closing fast. Last year's World Series hero shook his head and chuckled. "We know all about crazy comebacks," he said. "We're definitely not taking anything for granted."
Ten days ago, the battle for the second wild card appeared to be a two-horse race between St. Louis and Los Angeles. But since then, the Cardinals and Dodgers have been locked in an epic stumble toward the finish line, and this year's National League playoff bracket is now anyone's guess. Both teams control their own destiny. But they both also entered this I-got-it-you-take-it series having lost six of seven, while the Brewers had won 18 of 22 and the Phillies were on an 11-of-13 roll.
"We feel pretty lucky to be where we are in the standings," said Dodgers manager Don Mattingly. "I'm having trouble explaining our offense right now."
In a word, it has been awful. The Dodgers have scored only 25 runs total in the 11 games they've played so far in September, a bitter pill to swallow for Los Angeles fans who thought their lineup would hum like a video game after the team traded for Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez and Shane Victorino this summer. A severe power outage has a lot to do with the club's struggles. Going into Thursday night's contest, Andre Ethier hadn't homered in eight days. Kemp's last home run was on Sept. 2. For Hanley Ramirez, it was Sept. 3. And Adrian Gonzalez hadn't gone yard since his first at-bat as a Dodger back on Aug. 25.
"Maybe they've been trying too hard," said Mattingly. "It seems like we're pressing a bit. We just need to relax and play."
Gonzalez has looked particularly tight in Dodger blue, waving at high fastballs in the batter's box and hanging his head in the dugout. Since coming to L.A., the superstar first baseman has posted worse numbers (.229 BA, .286 OBP, .357 SLG) than James Loney, the weak-hitting player he was brought in to replace. (Loney has put up a .229 BA, .283 OBP, and .365 SLG with one home run so far in Boston.)
The Cardinals' butter and egg men haven't fared much better down the stretch. In the 14 games leading up to this pivotal series, Matt Holliday (.204/.291/.367), Allen Craig (.220/.254/.254) and Carlos Beltran (.213/.269/.298) have slumped hard.
"We're not pressing or tired," said Freese. "We're just playing bad."
Before the game, Kemp and Freese both were asked what clues might indicate their teams were back on track.
"When we score a run," they both answered.
Runs were certainly hard to come by Thursday night, in a game one writer likened to an underwater pillow fight. According to the rules, someone had to win. The Dodgers jumped out to a one-run lead on a first-inning RBI double by Gonzalez. Of their five hitters who reached base after the first inning, two were thrown out trying to steal. Not only did they fail to score a run in the final eight innings, they never even advanced a runner to third base.
After the game, catcher A.J. Ellis said: "There just seems to be a lot of pressure right now. It's like there's a weight on everyone and we've got to find a way to free it. The losing is definitely not for a lack of effort."
"It's just weird," said Kemp, whose offensive production has been hindered by a left shoulder injury. "We should be scoring five runs a game. I think guys are just trying to do too much."
The Cardinals shot themselves in the foot with a different kind of gun Thursday night. Despite 13 base runners, they scored only twice. Craig was hit by an easily avoidable batted ball to kill a rally in the fifth, and John Jay bunted into a pop-out with one on and no out in the seventh. Still, they happily took the victory.
"We're in no position to put a big emphasis on one game," said Cardinals skipper Mike Matheny about Thursday night's win. "But at the same time, every game is either taking us forward or backward."
Luckily for both clubs, the Phillies stepped backward Thursday night, blowing a late lead in a loss to the Astros. Ellis admitted he's been watching the out-of-town scoreboard on the right-field wall at Dodger Stadium closely this month, and did a double-take when he saw Houston pull ahead in the bottom of the eighth.
Unfortunately for the Dodgers, the Cardinals have six games remaining against the cellar-dwelling Astros before the season ends. They also face the Cubs three times. While the Cards finish at home with six games against two first-place teams (the Reds and Nationals), those clubs quite likely will have clinched their divisions and could be resting their stars to prepare for the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Dodgers hit the road next week to face the Nationals and Reds, and finish at home against the first-place Giants, who never take it easy on them.
Los Angeles gets three more cracks against the Cardinals this weekend, with Chris Capuano taking the mound Friday night against Joe Kelly, Joe Blanton facing Jaime Garcia on Saturday, and Clayton Kershaw dueling Adam Wainwright in the Sunday finale. If St. Louis takes two of those games, the Dodgers' season is all but over. But even if the Cardinals win the second wild-card spot, they're only guaranteed one playoff game -- presumably on the road against the Braves.
The Dodgers are struggling, but they haven't given up yet.
"I know they're not thinking of offseason hunting trips or anything like that," said Mattingly.
But they are starting to sweat.