SAN DIEGO -- So here we are, a little more than a week into September, and the Los Angeles Dodgers are at a crossroads. Not the kind of crossroads a team wants to encounter at this stage of the season, the one that separates those who will make the playoffs from those who will barely miss. But the kind of crossroads encountered by teams that already know they'll be watching the playoffs from the comfort of their living rooms.
To untrained eyes, the Dodgers appear to have one foot in those living rooms already. It was underscored yet again Wednesday night, when they seemed to sleepwalk their way to a 4-0 loss to the San Diego Padres before 20,851 at Petco Park, completing a three-game sweep in which the Dodgers seemed utterly devoid of energy.
Against a pitcher who had one previous start in the majors, when he was torched for four runs in five innings, the Dodgers managed two hits and a walk in six innings and struck out seven times. Against that rookie lefty, Cory Luebke, and four relievers, the Dodgers went hitless in four at-bats with runners in scoring position and were shut out for the 16th time this season. Against a team that came in on a 10-game losing streak, the Dodgers scored three runs in three games.
Those who actually wear the uniform, actually sit in the dugout and actually play the game insist this team isn't lifeless. Before the game, manager Joe Torre said for the umpteenth time in these past few weeks that the effort was there, even if the overall frustration was starting to feed on itself.
So here's the deal: What the Dodgers do with their remaining 22 games is entirely up to them, but whichever way they choose to go, it will have a major bearing on how this 2010 club will be remembered.
Sure, the Dodgers can go into the tank. They can show up for work every day, go through the motions and go home, rinse, repeat, until they have done it 22 times and can forget it all until next spring. They certainly wouldn't be the first team to be guilty of that, and at the end of a long, grueling, six-month season, there would be an element of human nature to it.
Or, the Dodgers can play for pride, and there is plenty of that left to play for.
For one, they can play for their won-lost record and their position in the standings.
The Dodgers (69-71) have lost five in a row and nine of 11, putting them two games below .500 for the first time since May 10. They haven't finished a season below .500 since 1995, a season that resulted in both their manager and general manager losing their jobs and the entire roster being largely overhauled. The Dodgers currently sit in fourth place in the National League West, 11 games behind the division-leading Padres.
But they also sit 6 1/2 games behind third-place Colorado, with six games remaining against the Rockies. Nobody ever remembers who finished third, but as long as the Dodgers have a shot at it, why not take it?
Most important, though, the Dodgers need to win as many games as they can and finish with as good a record as they can. They have to go 12-10 the rest of the way just to break even, 13-9 to finish with a winning record. There is enough talent on this team to do that and more.
For another thing, they can play for personal, individual goals.
That may sound anathema to what managers and coaches preach in this game, but at a point in the season when the Dodgers appear to have little else to shoot for, this could be a strong motivational tool. James Loney, who has been slumping but leads the team in RBIs with 80, has a chance to surpass the career-high 90 he had each of the past two seasons. Rafael Furcal, who has missed far too much time because of injuries to qualify for the list of the league's leading hitters, nevertheless has a chance to hit .300 or better for only the third time in his career (he's at .315). Andre Ethier, who has been in the throes of a miserable slump, still has time to break out of it and finish strong, maybe even an outside chance of getting his average back up around the .300 mark.
But probably the most important thing the Dodgers can do from here on out is relax and have fun playing baseball. Much of the appearance of lifelessness this team has presented in recent days is due more to tension, guys putting enormous pressure on themselves to perform in key situations and consequently rarely getting it done, and the frustration that has resulted from those repeated failures.
Although the Dodgers are still probably a week or two from mathematical elimination, the obvious reality is they aren't going to the playoffs. Thus, there really is no external pressure on them anymore, so why should there be internal pressure?
The Dodgers begin a four-game series at Houston on Thursday night, following an overnight flight and a 5 a.m. arrival. If they really are running on fumes, that would seem to be a situation that would only exacerbate the problem. But if playing tight and tense is the real problem -- and by most accounts, it is -- maybe going to Minute Maid Park a little bleary-eyed could actually play in the Dodgers' favor. Maybe they will be too tired to worry about it. Maybe they will be just relaxed enough to play like a team with nothing left to lose.
And maybe if they can do that, they will stop losing.
John Lindsey, the 16-year minor leaguer whom the Dodgers finally brought to the majors for the first time in his career Monday, made his major league debut in the eighth inning.
Well, sort of.
With runners on first and second and one out, Torre sent Lindsey to pinch hit for Scott Podsednik. But Padres manager Bud Black countered by bringing in right-hander Luke Gregerson to replace lefty Joe Thatcher and face the right-handed-hitting Lindsey. So Torre countered by calling back Lindsey, who had been announced and thus had officially been in the game and whose name later appeared in the official box score, and sending up Ethier instead.
Lindsey became the first player since Cody McKay of the St. Louis Cardinals in 2002 to make his major league debut as a pinch hitter without recording a plate appearance. Other notable players who have recorded such a "debut" are Richie Hebner, Bobby Abreu and Shane Spencer, who did it while playing for Torre with the New York Yankees in 1998, according to ESPN Stats and Information.
Torre said after the game that Lindsey, a first baseman, will start Saturday at Houston, when the Dodgers face Astros lefty Wandy Rodriguez, and that he also might start Friday night when lefty J.A. Happ pitches for Houston. Lindsey's parents and a handful of other friends and relatives are expected to make the trip from nearby Hattiesburg, Miss., where Lindsey was born, raised and still lives.
By the numbers
6 -- consecutive seasons in which the Dodgers have posted a losing record at Petco Park, where they lost five of nine this year after winning each of the first four and losing the next five. The Dodgers have had only one winning season in the seven-year history of the ballpark, winning five of nine in its inaugural season of 2004. The Dodgers now have an all-time record off 28-36 at Petco.
Shortstop Jake Lemmerman, the Dodgers' fifth-round pick in this year's amateur draft out of Duke University, was named the Most Valuable Player of the advanced Rookie-level Pioneer League after batting .367 with 12 home runs, 44 RBIs, a .436 on-base percentage, a .622 slugging percentage and a league-leading 24 doubles for the Dodgers' Ogden affiliate. The Raptors are headed to the league playoffs, which begin this weekend.
Quote of the day
"I'm framing that. That one is going on the fireplace. Well, I don't have one yet, but one day." -- Lindsey after being presented with the lineup card from Torre following a game in which Lindsey made his official major league debut without actually playing.
The non-contending Dodgers begin a four-game series against the non-contending Houston Astros in Houston, where football season already is under way. Dodgers left-hander Ted Lilly (8-9, 3.55) will take the mound at Minute Maid Park against Astros right-hander Bud Norris (6-8, 5.34). Lilly was sent to Houston ahead of the team because the Dodgers weren't scheduled to arrive until around 5:30 a.m. The Dodgers haven't played the Astros since sweeping them in a two-game series on May 16-17 at Dodger Stadium.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.