SAN FRANCISCO -- On the eve of their final homestand, only two-plus weeks of baseball now standing between them and a long vacation that to a man they will welcome with arms wide open, these Los Angeles Dodgers suddenly have left us knee-deep in reasons to pay attention. The only question now is whether anyone actually will.
The Dodgers finally came to the end of this interminable road trip Sunday, getting pounded 8-1 by the San Francisco Giants before a sellout crowd of 41,466 at AT&T Park, but that probably wasn't anything more than a momentary speed bump on this strangely compelling, too-little-too-late sprint to the finish. Hiroki Kuroda, one of their most reliable starting pitchers all season, struggled for the third start in a row, but he will have three more to right himself. The bullpen, rock-solid pretty much all season, suffered a one-game meltdown, but it's not a trend until it becomes one.
So as the Dodgers come home having won 15 of their past 19 to pull to within one game of the once-unattainable .500 mark -- they actually got there after beating the Giants on Saturday night, but this loss pushed them back under -- we are left basically to guess what kind of lens we should view this through.
For the optimist, it is a reason to hope, a reason to think that for all its ownership and bankruptcy issues, perhaps this franchise has a chance to be competitive in 2012 if all these youngsters who are making such strong impressions can continue to do so. For the pessimist, it is a reason to look back and wonder why it took so long, to point out that if the Dodgers hadn't stranded all those runners in scoring position and lost all those close games in April, May and June, maybe they would be doing more right now than playing out the string, even if they are playing it out with an admirably professional approach.
So what does it all really mean?
"It's really good to see the effort we're seeing," Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said this weekend. "A lot of times, with teams with high expectations, when they fall 12 games back or 14 back or whatever it was, and double digits under .500, a lot of those teams go home. To our players' credit they kept playing. That tells you who they are as people as much as how good they are as players."
Fair enough, but will that sell? We will find out this week, when the Dodgers begin their 10-game, home finale with a three-game series against the equally sizzling Arizona Diamondbacks, a team that needs only to avoid a collapse of historic proportions to storm into the playoffs. They have won only 16 of 19 games and almost came back from seven down to beat San Diego on Sunday before falling a run short.
The Dodgers most certainly will not storm into the playoffs, because another thing we are almost certain to see on this homestand is their mathematical elimination. Any combination of Diamondbacks wins and Dodgers losses equaling five will knock the Dodgers out of the National League West, and any combination of Dodgers losses and Atlanta Braves victories totaling six will bury them in the wild-card race.
Moral victories and consolation prizes don't count for much in Major League Baseball. And with much of the Los Angeles-area populace refusing to return to Dodger Stadium as long as it and the franchise that plays there remain in the hands of Frank McCourt, moral victories and consolation prizes aren't likely to sell a lot of tickets, either.
And so, if the Dodgers find a way to finish with a winning record after falling as many as 14 games below .500 as recently as July 6, if they find a way to overtake the Giants for second place in the NL West, will anyone care?
Will the Dodgers themselves even care?
"All we're asking these guys to do is get ready to play, and play hard every day," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "That is what we have tried to do all year, and these guys have done that. That is really the only goal for this club. We want to play hard and get ready to play through the last day, and wherever we end up is where we end up as far as our record."
Where the third-place Dodgers (72-73) stand now, at the end of a remarkable 7-3 trip, is 12 games behind the division-leading Diamondbacks and 3½ behind the Giants. But -- and this is where that aforementioned pessimism comes in -- they also are just 3½ ahead of the fourth-place Colorado Rockies, and there is no guarantee this thing won't turn on a dime and go back the other way, especially with the Diamondbacks coming to town.
The storylines aren't limited to wins, losses and standings, though. The Dodgers do have a solid Cy Young Award candidate in Clayton Kershaw, who will get three more starts, two of them on the homestand. They have a strong Most Valuable Player candidate in Matt Kemp, whose quest to become the fifth player in major league history to hit 40 homers and steal 40 bases is still very much alive. And they have Kuroda (11-16), who despite his record has been by far the Dodgers' second-best starter this year in what may or may not be his final season with the club and his final season in the U.S.
He also is slated for three more starts, and his troublesome neck stiffness notwithstanding, he said he plans to make all of them.
"I intend to prepare for my next start and for all of my starts for the rest of the season,'' Kuroda said, with Kenji Nimura interpreting.
The Dodgers fell flat in the final game of their trip, which primarily was a consequence of running into promising young Giants lefty Madison Bumgarner (11-12) on an afternoon when he was especially sharp. Their assignment doesn't get any easier from here, with Joe Saunders, Cy Young candidate Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson awaiting them in the Diamondbacks series, Kennedy set to go for his 20th win Tuesday night.
But it wasn't that long ago when there wouldn't have been any reason whatsoever to pay attention to this series, when the Dodgers would have been easy pickings against an opponent that can practically taste the champagne already. But that no longer is the case. The Dodgers aren't really in a position to play spoiler -- the Diamondbacks have such a big lead on the division that even a three-game sweep would do little to dent it -- but they are, suddenly, in a position to keep our interest.
And that alone is a sign of just how far this team has come in recent weeks.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.