Offense lets down Dodgers again

SAN DIEGO -- Following an afternoon when the San Diego Padres broke out their 1978 road jerseys -- the ones with the bright gold sleeves, dark brown torsos and the team's name spelled in a straight, horizontal line across the chest in that weird, rounded-off lettering that must have seemed cool at the time -- it was impossible to leave Petco Park without pondering two burning questions:

• Whatever happened to Gene Richards?

• Are the Dodgers ever going to score more than two runs in a game again?

It was same problem, different day for the Dodgers on Thursday, when they used up their daily allotment of runs by the fifth inning, went six-up, six-down in the eighth and ninth for the third game in a row and wound up dropping the rubber game of a critical series to the Padres 3-2 before a sellout crowd of 42,075.

On a day when manager Joe Torre shuffled the top of the lineup, dropping the slumping Rafael Furcal to second for the first time this season and inserting newly acquired speedster Scott Podsednik into the leadoff spot, it did no good. The Dodgers managed all of three hits, one of them a solo home run by James Loney, and they were able to squeeze just one run from the only thing close to a sustained rally they could muster all day, a fifth-inning uprising that was built around walks to two of the first three batters by Padres ace Mat Latos.

The Dodgers have now scored two runs or fewer in four consecutive games. Other than Saturday's victory over the New York Mets, when the Dodgers managed to eke out three runs but needed 13 innings to do it, they haven't scored more than two runs in a game since July 20.

"We're struggling," said Furcal, who is struggling more than most -- he has one hit in his past 23 at-bats. "We can't get clutch hits when we need them, especially me. I came to bat a couple of times with a chance to get an RBI and couldn't get the job done. … I think right now we're just trying to do too much. We need to concentrate on putting the ball in play when we need to."

After taking Tuesday night's opener of a series that was far more monumental for them than it was for the division-leading Padres -- the score was 2-0, of course -- the Dodgers dropped the next two, going a combined 2-for-38 with 16 strikeouts in those games from the fourth inning through the ninth.

As Padres left fielder Scott Hairston rounded third and crossed the plate with the winning run in the bottom of the ninth -- he was driven in by Oscar Salazar's pinch-hit single on the sort of simple, put-the-bat-on-the-ball type of swing the Dodgers (54-48) suddenly seen utterly incapable of taking -- the area around the plate became a sea of old-school, brown-and-gold jerseys as the Padres erupted from their dugout to celebrate what might have been their biggest win of the season so far.

They pushed their division lead to 3½ games over the San Francisco Giants in the National League West and are now seven ahead of the third-place Dodgers, a team that appears to be fading.

"We need to start hitting," Torre said. "We're fighting, scratching and playing hard, but we're having too many easy innings on the offensive side, and we're really putting a lot of stress on our pitching staff, both the starters and relievers."

Despite what it might look like, all is not lost. The Dodgers have faced more dire circumstances than these even later in a season, both in 2006 and 2008, and wound up in the playoffs both years. There are still two months of baseball left, including 10 more head-to-head matchups with the Padres, four of them next week at Dodger Stadium.

But there isn't plenty of time for the offense to get itself going, not when the Dodgers are about to begin another important series at San Francisco on Friday night with two-time reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum waiting to face them in the opener. The Dodgers certainly can't afford to wait until Manny Ramirez returns from the disabled list, something that isn't expected to happen for at least a couple of weeks.

"We just need to put a little pressure on the opposing pitchers," Torre said. "Right now, we aren't doing that."

Key moment

The Padres' winning rally came against Dodgers reliever George Sherrill (1-2), who has struggled all season but appeared to be figuring it out over the past few days. Despite the hard-luck result, this appeared to be a continuation of that recovery, as both of the hits Sherrill gave up were well-placed.

The first was a broken-bat hit that Hairston pulled through the left side and off the outstretched arm of a diving Casey Blake at third base. The second, which came after Tony Gwynn sacrificed, was up the middle, just getting by Sherrill before he could get his glove down and scooting into center field.

The interesting thing was that Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton was warming up in the bullpen. Although Torre rarely uses Broxton in potential extra-inning situations on the road unless it is a save situation, Torre said after the game he would have gone to Broxton if Sherrill had gotten a second out. That raises the question of why he didn't bring in the right-handed Broxton to face the right-handed-hitting Salazar or why he didn't simply order the left-handed Sherrill to intentionally walk Salazar to set up a double-play situation for Aaron Cunningham, who was on deck to hit for Padres reliever Heath Bell.

The Padres had an unused Matt Stairs on their bench, and manager Bud Black could have sent him up instead of either Salazar or Cunningham if Broxton had been summoned.

Lost in the shuffle

Podsednik's first game with the Dodgers was a mixed bag.

He went 0-for-3 with a walk, but he did display his speed, which was one of the reasons the Dodgers traded for him, when he stole third base on a sleeping Latos in the third inning. Podsednik also was charged with a borderline error when he ran down a ball that was bouncing toward the track in left-center in the seventh inning but then had the ball carom off his glove as Will Venable made it all the way to third.

Venable never broke stride around second, so the official scorer could have credited him with a triple, but it was ultimately determined Venable would have stopped at second if Podsednik had fielded the ball cleanly. At any rate, the play proved inconsequential, as Venable was stranded on third when James McDonald got Jerry Hairston to fly out.

Podsednik's stolen base came after Latos made two pickoff throws and failed to get him. Podsednik then broke toward second before Latos started his delivery, but inexplicably, Latos never saw him and began his delivery toward the plate with Podsednik in full stride, giving catcher Yorvit Torrealba no chance to throw Podsednik out.

After the game, Podsednik said the whirlwind of activity surrounding his trade from the Kansas City Royals still hadn't fully subsided.

"Everything is kind of in fast-forward right now," he said. "I just want to get to San Francisco and try to settle in. I felt comfortable out there on the field. But it was just getting up early this morning and getting out here [from Kansas City] and all that. I'm just ready for things to calm down and to have a good series in San Francisco."

By the numbers

36 -- hitless at-bats by left-handed hitters against Dodgers All-Star reliever Hong-Chih Kuo this season before Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez finally got a hit off the left-hander, a hard single to center with one out in the bottom of the eighth. Lefties are now hitting .027 (1-for-37) against Kuo this season. Kuo retired the next two batters to extend his current scoreless streak to 16 2/3 innings and shave his ERA for the season to 0.76.

By the numbers II

.500 -- winning percentage by the Padres in home games over their 42-year history, a level they reached by taking two of three from the Dodgers to improve to 1,656-1,656. It marks the first time the Padres have reached the .500 mark at home since they were 8-8 on May 17, 1969, after the first 16 home games in franchise history.

Quote of the day

"They obviously play very well in games like this. They're a scrappy group, and they play hard. Every guy they bring out of that bullpen can carry his own weight. You have to take them seriously, knowing how important pitching is. You're basically going to have to take it from them, because they aren't going to give it to anybody." -- Torre, when asked after the game if the surprising Padres are past the point of being surprising.

Looking ahead

Rookie right-hander Carlos Monasterios (3-2, 3.30) will make his second start since being reinserted into the rotation Saturday, when he pitched five shutout innings, scattering six hits in a no-decision against the New York Mets. Lincecum (10-4, 3.12) pitched six shutout innings against the Dodgers on April 17 in a 9-0 Giants win, but they got to him for five runs and seven hits in just 4 2/3 innings July 20.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.