Dodgers can't shake reality

PHOENIX -- Call me a glutton for punishment, or maybe just an incorrigible seamhead, but I made a point to be in my seat for the first pitch of Sunday's game at Chase Field even as several of my colleagues stayed back in the media dining room to watch the Women's World Cup final.

I'm not sure I really expected to see anything other than what I ultimately did see, which was another offensive flameout by the Los Angeles Dodgers and another frustrating loss, 4-1 to the Arizona Diamondbacks. But the Dodgers, if we are to believe what they keep telling us, are still expecting their season to turn on a dime one of these days, and if this was to be that day, I guess I didn't want to miss even a portion of it.

By the end of a game that seemed to go by in a flash -- Diamondbacks right-hander Daniel Hudson (10-5) went the distance, holding the Dodgers to one hit and allowing them just one run on a wild pitch, of all things -- it was clear nothing had really changed since the All-Star break, that the five-game winning streak the Dodgers had sandwiched around it had been nothing more than a brief respite from a reality this team just can't seem to shake.

So far in the second half, the Dodgers are 2-for-13 with runners in scoring position. They won the opener of this three-game series on Friday night, then dropped the next two, marking the eighth time this season that has happened. They scored a total of three runs in the two losses, wasting a pair of strong pitching performances by Hiroki Kuroda and Ted Lilly (6-10).

Meanwhile, in three games since the break, Andre Ethier is 0-or-12, Rafael Furcal is 0-for-9, and even Jamey Carroll, whom the Dodgers have been forced to count on far more than they should have, is 0-for-8.

"It is frustrating," said Dodgers catcher Rod Barajas, who is 0-for-3 because he has played in only one of those games. "It seems like we're playing catch-up all the time. We have guys with track records, guys who can hit. We knew we're better than that."

The time to show it is now.

The eternal optimist might suggest that Monday is the first day of the rest of the Dodgers' season. The realist will respond by pointing out that Monday also is the first day of what probably is the Dodgers' last real shot to make a significant push at salvaging their season, because that is when they begin a three-game series with the San Francisco Giants, defending world champs and current National League West leaders.

The Dodgers, whose offense appears overmatched pretty much every night, will face this trio of starters at AT&T Park: Ryan Vogelsong, a freshly minted NL All-Star; Madison Bumgarner, a guy who as a rookie pitched eight shutout innings in the pivotal game of last year's World Series; and Tim Lincecum, a two-time defending Cy Young Award winner.

And this is a series the Dodgers basically have to sweep. No matter what their manager says.

"You have to look at it as needing to go in there and gain ground," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "You can't look at it as having to go in there and sweep. You need to win the series."

But what will two out of three really get you? That five-game winning streak netted the fourth-place Dodgers (42-53) all of a half-game in the standings, and the two-game losing streak that followed it has pushed them a full game further behind the Giants, to 12 1/2 back.

Several seasons ago, when I was covering the Cincinnati Reds, they put together an impressive late-season run, going 19-9 from Sept. 1 on. It left them with a winning record (85-77) and in second place in the NL Central, but it also was a run to nowhere, the Reds finishing that year 10 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals. Still, in an odd way, when it was over, the season felt like some semblance of a success because of that finish, even though manager Jack McKeon and much of his coaching staff were fired the next day.

So I asked Mattingly before Sunday's game what would constitute saving the season. Does that mean coming back to steal an increasingly unlikely playoff spot? Or does it mean simply getting back to .500, maybe salvaging a winning record and perhaps second or third place?

"I think our goal is still to make the playoffs, or at least to give ourselves a chance to do it," Mattingly said. "That is what you come here for in the beginning. We didn't come into the season to play .500 or to finish second or to make a good run at it. At this point, we want to make the playoffs. But you can't look at it like you have to win every day."

Even though, for the next three days anyway, the Dodgers kind of do have to win every day.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.