Slowly slipping away

Late on the afternoon of Aug. 25, the Dodgers appeared to be going places. They had just gotten a dramatic three-run home run in Adrian Gonzalez's first at-bat as a Dodger and eight strong innings from Clayton Kershaw.

They were two games behind the San Francisco Giants in the NL West. Ten days earlier, the Giants had lost one of their best hitters, Melky Cabrera, to a 50-game drug suspension and the Dodgers thought they had fortified their roster for a serious stretch run.

If you had offered them the opportunity to go 16-10 over the next month, do you think they would have taken it? If such a thing were possible and they had said, "Yes," they would be in a comfortable position for the second wild card, three games ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals with nine to play.

Instead, it's been Bizarro World. The Dodgers are 10-16 since then and barely clinging to playoff life, trailing St. Louis by three games. Gonzalez didn't hit his next Dodger home run until this past Sunday, a homerless span of 25 games. Kershaw missed three starts dealing with a painful hip injury that will be a concern through the end of the season and could require off-season surgery.

Before the Dodgers' three-game series in Cincinnati over the weekend, manager Don Mattingly told reporters he felt the team needed to sweep to be in position for a playoff berth. It didn't sweep, getting shut out (for the fourth time in three weeks) on Saturday.

So this is where things stand: The Dodgers have nine games left and they probably can't afford to lose more than two of them to have a shot at the playoffs.

Even if they go 7-2, the Cardinals would have to go no better than 4-5 (and they play their next three games against a Houston Astros team that is 50-102).

It's even tougher than that, however, because the Dodgers' slow-motion September has allowed the Milwaukee Brewers to pass them. Milwaukee would have to go worse than 7-3, including Monday's game, to stay out of the Dodgers' way. Oh yeah, and they have three more left against Houston, too.

Maybe that's the Dodgers' problem. If the Astros had already moved into the AL West, as they will next season, this thing would be a lot more manageable.

ESPN.com's "Hunt for October" estimates the Dodgers' chances of winning a wild card at less than 5 percent. Of course, any team that plays six games under .500 after the biggest trade in franchise history (by dollar value) and with everything on the line, probably doesn't deserve to be in a prime position at this time of year.

You can see signs of hope poking through lately. Gonzalez said he felt something change in his swing Sunday while hitting two solo home runs, something he can perhaps build on. Matt Kemp started to emerge from a deep slump on the recent road trip, coming up with a couple of game-winning hits. Just the fact that Kershaw was on the mound in the fifth inning Sunday cheered a lot of people up.

But will their move -- if they have a move in them -- come too late? Will they essentially be passing tired horses for place or show? The Dodgers will try to channel the 1951 Giants, the 1964 Cardinals or, for that matter, the 2011 Cardinals, and stage an improbable comeback. Compared to what those teams did, erasing a three-game deficit with nine to play wouldn't even qualify as historic.

It's not impossible that they could pull it off, just highly improbable, mostly because of the way they've been playing of late.

And if it doesn't happen, they'll have to ask themselves all winter long why it had to be like this.