LOS ANGELES -- With apologies to Max Factor and Mary Kay, the best way to conceal blemishes in baseball is to win games. And as they entered the opener of a monumental series between the National League's two hottest teams Thursday night, the Los Angeles Dodgers had been doing a lot of winning, and a lot of concealing, in recent days.
But in a 4-3 loss to the Atlanta Braves before 35,333 at Dodger Stadium, every pimple in the Dodgers' suddenly punchless lineup was suddenly exposed.
Yes, they were coming off a riveting three-game sweep of the Arizona Diamondbacks, a series in which all three games were walk-off wins. But all those victories spoke to the fact the Dodgers couldn't put the clearly inferior Diamondbacks away, the direct result of the Dodgers' inability to push runs across. In the final two games of that series, both extra-inning, 1-0 victories, it was easy for most observers to ignore the fact the Dodgers didn't score once in regulation.
It wasn't so easy for hitting coach Don Mattingly to ignore. Which is why he specifically addressed it before Thursday's game, in the usual pregame meeting that takes place before the first game of any series.
"I hope guys aren't trying to hit home runs, because we're not that kind of team," Mattingly said after the game. "But in a 0-0 game that goes into extra innings, guys always like to be the hero. That is what we talked about, that hitting home runs is all good, but you have to keep fighting for those hits. I just told them we need to get back to making sure we're doing what we do, because we're not a sit-back-and-wait-for-the-home-run kind of team."
In reality, the collective struggle goes back more than a week, to the start of the last road trip. It began as the Dodgers were being shut out in two of three games in Chicago, with Cubs right-hander Ryan Dempster sailing through eight innings on 104 pitches in the opener. Then, on Saturday night at Colorado, Aaron Cook pitched into the seventh inning on fewer than 100 pitches in the only game the Rockies would win in that series.
All three Diamondbacks starters went at least eight innings, and while all three threw at least 115 pitches, the fact the Dodgers didn't make them sweat much in terms of pitching out of jams was significant.
And then, finally, it all came to a head when Atlanta's Kris Medlen needed fewer than 100 to pitch four batters deep into the eighth inning.
"We aren't necessarily having real good at-bats," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "The opposing pitchers' pitch counts haven't been real high. I think we aren't having the quality at-bats we had maybe a week or so ago. We're just going to have to keep fighting our way out of it. I think it comes down to trying to do too much. Especially with the extra-inning games the last couple of days, guys might have been trying to hit home runs."
The Dodgers did mount a stirring rally in the eighth inning, when four batters in a five-batter stretch hit safely against Medlen and reliever Peter Moylan and the Dodgers scored three times and stranded the potential tying run on third base.
"We got a little energy all of a sudden," Mattingly said. "When you're not scoring, sometimes you're just flat. When you get guys on base and you have an opportunity, it can pick up you a little bit. But when you're not even getting the opportunities to score runs, that is when it can get frustrating."
And for the most part, the Dodgers (31-23), who fell 1 1/2 games behind division-leading San Diego in the NL West, haven't had opportunities. They have had only one extra-base hit in each of their past three games, during which they also have gotten only 15 runners into scoring position -- and keep in mind, those three games totaled 33 innings.
"We certainly haven't liked the results," Mattingly said. "The way we were swinging the bats in the Cubs series wasn't that good. It was OK, I guess, in the Colorado series. But the Arizona series wasn't real good, either. But I think every team goes through one of these little stretches, where guys start pressing a little bit and trying to do too much. You go through it three or four times a year.
"You just have to keep going, put bad days behind you and let the last couple of days turn into a better next one."
Torre couldn't predict whether third baseman Casey Blake will be able to return to the lineup Friday night. Blake was scratched about two hours before game time because of back spasms that started while he was taking ground balls during batting practice. Torre said Blake watched the game from the dugout but wasn't available to pinch hit.
Meanwhile, reliever Jeff Weaver's injury was nothing more serious than a blister on the middle finger of his right hand. Weaver came in from the bullpen to start the seventh inning but was taken out before he threw an actual pitch when the blister appeared while he was warming up, and Torre said Weaver's removal was just a precaution to prevent the blister from opening up. Weaver presumably will be available Friday night.
Right-hander Vicente Padilla finally began his minor league rehabilitation assignment, almost six weeks after he was shelved with a nerve problem at the top of his right forearm. Pitching for high Single-A Inland Empire at home against High Desert, Padilla pitched three shutout innings, giving up only one hit while striking out five without a walk. He threw 37 pitches. Padilla was immediately followed by rehabbing left-hander George Sherrill, who pitched an easy scoreless, hitless inning on only eight pitches.
Sherrill is expected to make his next appearance for Triple-A Albuquerque on Saturday against Memphis, then come off the disabled list in time for Tuesday night's game with St. Louis. Padilla is expected to make at least one more start at Inland Empire, after which he might move his rehab to Albuquerque.
Quote of the day
"I know how the game works. I had a feeling this might be happening, so I was kind of prepared for it. I was just happy to be here the last three days, and I'm happy I was able to get the job done yesterday. It's obviously a good way to go out." -- reliever Travis Schlichting, who was optioned back to Triple-A Albuquerque only four days after he was called up, and one day after he turned in four shutout innings and came away with his first big league win in a 14-inning victory over Arizona. The move was made because club officials felt they needed reinforcements in the bullpen after five relievers combined to throw nine innings Wednesday. Charlie Haeger was activated from the disabled list to take Schlichting's spot.
The four-game clash of titans -- titans for now, at least -- continues with a matchup of Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw (5-3, 2.95), who has a 1.08 ERA over his past five starts and has won four of them, and Braves right-hander Kenshin Kawakami (0-7, 4.66), whose unsightly won-lost record is largely the result of poor run support: the Braves have averaged three runs in his 10 starts.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.