Desperation time in D.C.

On April 29, Chris Capuano won a 2-0 game over Gio Gonzalez at Dodger Stadium as the Dodgers finished a three-game sweep of the Washington Nationals. And here's how much the Dodgers can take from that as they prepare for three crucial games in the nation's capital starting Tuesday:

"Pretty much nothing," manager Don Mattingly said.

The Nationals hadn't emerged as a World Series contender yet, nobody knew Gonzalez was going to push ahead as a Cy Young Award contender, and the Dodgers were still a bunch of scrappy overachievers. The identity of both teams has changed dramatically. In the Dodgers' case, it has changed physically, with the wholesale roster turnover around both trade deadlines.

"We know we can play with anybody if we play and do the things we're capable of," Mattingly said. "They've had a great year and we've just got to play the game as we get there."

This isn't exactly an ideal time to run into the best team in the National League. The Dodgers' best hitter, Matt Kemp, is in a spiraling batting slump, and their second-best hitter, Adrian Gonzalez, is coming off a feeble 0-for-5 day, before which he described his swing as "a wreck."

The shortstop, Hanley Ramirez, seems to boot one crucial ball every game. The ace, Clayton Kershaw, will spend Tuesday visiting a hip specialist in New York and may not pitch again in 2012.

All of which just might give Dodgers fans reason for hope and optimism. Why? Because this team has done the opposite of what people expect at virtually every turn. They were supposed to be mediocre at best when the season started, and they opened 16-6. After all of the trades, they were supposed to be headed straight for the playoffs; they're 8-13 since the big one with the Boston Red Sox.

They have fallen out of the NL West race, are clinging to the wild-card chase and they have scored more than three runs just twice in their past nine games. The good news is the Dodgers won't face Stephen Strasburg (who has been shut down for the season to preserve his long-term health) or Gonzalez.

The big U-turn Dodgers fans keep waiting for probably isn't going to happen if Kemp continues to bat .122, as he has this month. He has struck out 14 times, walked once and driven in two runs. It's no wonder the Dodgers can't seem to get this pennant race going.

"His character is great, so I know he's going to come out of it," Mattingly said.

This is the time of year when the Dodgers need all of the character they can get.