Dodgers aren't moving, but the clock is

LOS ANGELES -- The problem with calling these next three games -- or five games or 10 games -- "must-win" is that it sort of makes everything that precedes them seem optional. When you're playing Colorado, Arizona or San Diego, it's not as if the league views those games as friendlies.

The Dodgers have added a note of desperation to their season by going 6-10 in a relatively light portion of their schedule. Now, with the most talented, polished teams in the National League looming on the schedule, their margin for error is approaching microscopic.

It's not as if they don't know these things. They've been living with the results and they're perfectly capable of reading a schedule.

"Every series is a must-win in September," Matt Kemp said. "No excuses. We've got to go out there and play every game like it's our last game because you don't ever know what can happen."

Actually, we do know what can happen.

If the Dodgers don't play well in the next 10 days, against the very teams they're chasing, at some point they'll join the still-tiny list of teams with an "X" in front of its name in the standings. "X," of course, stands for eliminated.

If that happens, this team probably will be in for some changes. They're operating under new owners, after all, and those owners just spent $260 million to land a winner, so their patience for underperforming figures to have fairly tight limits.

But maybe we're getting ahead of ourselves. The Dodgers are, after all, still in reach of the San Francisco Giants in the NL West (4 1/2 back with six head-to-head games left) and in the thick of the expanded wild-card race (just 1 1/2 games back). They haven't really slipped so much as failed to gain traction.

The most worrisome thing is they're offering scant signs that they're about to become a dynamic September force. They just wrapped up a six-game homestand during which they averaged 3.3 runs per game.

It's been a drab atmosphere in the clubhouse lately and it was a bit quiet in the dugout after San Diego's brilliant center fielder, Cameron Maybin, leaped at the wall to take a two-run home run away from Kemp in the seventh inning. If Maybin had missed that ball or Kemp had hit it four inches farther, the Dodgers would have won and everything would feel different. But that's what makes this time of year special ... and, at times, especially frustrating.

"We were a bit down, but I think at that point, we've still got outs left," manager Don Mattingly said.

That's why you keep trudging forward at this time of year, even when you can barely score, your pitchers give up early leads and your chemistry is questionable. The team or teams you're chasing might collapse, as a couple of them did last season. You might get a key hit and finally catch fire, as Kemp obviously needs. Virtually anything can happen as the pressure mounts with the arrival of cooler weather.

Or, as Mattingly put it, the Dodgers still have outs left.