Is this a four-game last stand?

After the Dodgers' charter touched down late Wednesday night, catcher A.J. Ellis tweeted, "Back in LA. Really encouraged by tweets from fans tonight. Need a packed stadium this weekend to give a much needed spark vs Cards."

It's difficult to keep the faith if you're a Dodgers fan these days, but the next four days could be the last chance to enjoy pennant-race atmosphere, so might as well indulge.

It doesn't go far enough to say the next four games against the St. Louis Cardinals are crucial to the Dodgers' chances. It's more accurate to say they're desperation games, because a split -- the most common outcome of a four-game series -- probably won't be good enough to put the Dodgers' on a trajectory for the playoffs.

Is it as simple as saying the Dodgers need to take at least three of the next four games? Unless they make a move soon, the schedule sets up favorably for the Cardinals -- or somebody else -- and the Dodgers could well be home for the playoffs, having to explain why more than $300 million in improvements wasn't enough to get them there.

Does anybody want this thing?

Neither team is exactly riding high. The Dodgers have have lost six of their last seven while the Cardinals have gone 4-11 in their last 15. Bizarrely, the Dodgers have actually inched ahead over the past couple of weeks.

Both teams have been struggling in their own division. Losses to San Diego and Arizona could be the Dodgers' undoing. Bad series against Pittsburgh and Milwaukee could cost the Cardinals dearly.

The wild-card race has been so glacial lately that teams that never expected to be there are catching up. The Philadelphia Phillies and Milwaukee Brewers, both of whom sold at the trade deadline and sent off marquee players, are each within three games of St. Louis and, unlike the other two teams, have momentum.

The Dodgers are lucky to be where they are. In any other race, they'd be calling resorts to line up vacation plans.

"We've let a lot of people back in the race, but it's still in our hands, no matter how bad it has looked," manager Don Mattingly told reporters in Arizona. "It's there for us."

Advantage: ?

Schedule says

After finishing up with the Cardinals on Sunday, the Dodgers head out for their toughest trip of the season, perhaps in many seasons. It's a nine-game, three-time-zone tour that starts at first-place Washington, heads to first-place Cincinnati and concludes in red-hot San Diego.

That's worrisome, but even more worrisome is this: The Cardinals' next nine games after they leave L.A. are against Houston and Chicago, teams that are a combined 84 games under .500.

Let's repeat that: 84 games under .500!

If there is a shred of hope in there, it's that the Cardinals haven't quite dominated the doormats of their division, going 8-6 against Chicago and 6-3 against Houston. Still, the schedule will make it a grueling march if the Dodgers can't take care of business this weekend at home.

Advantage: Cardinals

Opposites detract

This series pits one of the best pitching teams in the majors against one of the best hitting teams. The Cardinals are second in the National League in runs, second in OPS and, despite playing home games in one of the biggest stadiums in the majors, seventh in home runs. They lead the majors with a .338 on-base percentage.

The Dodgers, with a 3.46 ERA, have the second-best pitching in the National League.

Needless to say, the Dodgers have been disappointing offensively and the Cardinals have struggled at times with pitching. It's not as if neither team has the players to change that direction, though. Kyle Lohse, Adam Wainwright, Jake Westbrook and Lance Lynn have all won at least 13 games for the Cardinals. Hanley Ramirez and Adrian Gonzalez were supposed to give the Dodgers one of the deeper lineups in the league, but it hasn't worked out that way.

Advantage: Good pitching supposedly beats good hitting, so we'll tentatively say Dodgers.

Pain index

Both teams have been rocked by injuries, but then again, so have a lot of contending teams. The Cardinals have lost Lance Berkman to season-ending knee surgery and shortstop Rafael Furcal for an extended period with an elbow injury. Chris Carpenter (shoulder) was supposed to miss the season, but he now could be back in time for the final stretch.

The Dodgers missed 53 games from Matt Kemp and had to scratch Clayton Kershaw from his start Sunday with a sore hip, but their two best homegrown players are back now and, they say, healthy. Starter Chad Billingsley is out for the season and will find out soon whether he needs Tommy John surgery. Closer Kenley Jansen could return as soon as Tuesday after missing a few weeks with with an irregular heartbeat.

Advantage: Nobody.

Where's this headed?

It feels like the Dodgers need to take at least three out of four this weekend. To accomplish that, winning Game 1 becomes paramount. It's a bit odd that, at the time of their greatest need, they hand the ball to a guy they barely know. Josh Beckett, an object of ridicule for his part in a toxic Boston clubhouse, could be one of the Dodgers' saviors just three weeks after being traded west.

The teams have their aces lined up for Sunday, but Kershaw has out-pitched Wainwright, so that should be an advantage game for the Dodgers. The middle two games are toss-ups and the Dodgers have to figure out a way to win at least one of them. Jaimie Garcia goes Saturday for the Cardinals, good news for the Dodgers since he has been awful on the road lately, bad news for the Dodgers since every soft-tossing lefty that comes along seems to shut them down.

Essentially, this weekend comes down to trends. The team that gets a few of theirs going in a different direction sets itself up to have some fun in October.