Once again, Dodgers' offense falls flat

LOS ANGELES -- Watching batting practice from the dugout before Saturday night's game, Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly briefly allowed himself to do something hardened baseball lifers almost never do.

Specifically, he talked about the what-ifs, such as what the landscape might look like if the Dodgers hadn't been without their full, projected lineup for all but a handful of games at the start of the season and if the Dodgers hadn't found it so maddeningly impossible, pretty much all year, to get a timely hit with men in scoring position.

"There were so many series when we should have won two out of three," Mattingly said. "Really, we should have been winning two out of three all year."

Nothing would change in the game, a 6-1 loss to the Florida Marlins before a paid crowd of 29,971 that included, as part of that figure, a bunch of dogs whose owners brought them out for Bark at the Park night and paid $30 a head. The only thing that would ignite at Dodger Stadium was a storage area at Top of the Park, causing the fire department to come out and half the top-deck and reserved sections to be evacuated, but the blaze was quickly under control and no one was asked to leave the ballpark.

The Dodgers' offense, once again, was as watered-down as that storage area by the end of the evening, and there doesn't appear to be much reason to think it's going to change any time soon. On Sunday, the Dodgers will face Ricky Nolaso, the Marlins' de facto ace with Josh Johnson on the disabled list. Opposing teams are hitting .258 against him, and most of those teams aren't as bad offensively as the Dodgers are.

Long story short, the Dodgers are in grave danger of dropping the final two games of a three-game series after winning the opener for the sixth time this season. Mattingly can make the argument all he wants that the Dodgers were a key hit here or there from winning all five of those previous series, but at some point, you have to wonder whether maybe this Dodgers team simply isn't good enough to get a key hit.

They had gotten one Friday night from an unlikely source, light-hitting backup catcher Dioner Navarro coming through for a walk-off single in the ninth inning. But that was with the bases loaded, nobody out and the Marlins infield and outfield playing in, a situation in which almost anything but a strikeout stood a good chance of winning the game. But those big hits that keep an inning alive, that bring in a run, that turn a one-run rally into a three-run rally, well, those are the ones the Dodgers seem wholly, collectively incapable of producing.

"You always believe in your guys and that things are going to turn," Mattingly said. "You know it's going to take something to get us out of it and get some of those hits. We got the hit last night, and you're thinking, 'This is it, the worm is going to turn right there.' But this was basically the same thing going on. I don't feel like there were a ton of chances, but we had some guys out there."

The Dodgers entered Saturday having stranded more baserunners this season than all but two other National League clubs. They weren't all in scoring position. It only seems that way.

By the end of the fifth inning, the Dodgers were 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position in a game they were losing by two runs. But after Hiroki Kuroda (5-5) was charged with two more runs in the sixth on a pinch-hit double by Wes Helms off Mike MacDougal, it was fairly clear the Dodgers were done. Their only other at-bats with a man in scoring position came only because Aaron Miles jogged uncontested from first base to second base with two outs in the ninth, just before Tony Gwynn grounded to short to end the game.

The fourth-place Dodgers (23-30), who remained six games behind the division-leading San Francisco Giants, are left hitting .211 for the season with men in scoring position, including .192 with two outs.

"I don't think they're overanxious," Mattingly said. "Obviously, if you're not getting those runs -- and we have been in this situation all year long -- and you haven't been able to get anything going offensively in general on a consistent basis, that is a pretty frustrating thing. You really ask guys to put [bad] days behind them and have good at-bats that day.

"As far as their approaches in those situations, I don't see anything different than what they're doing all the time. We just haven't been able to come up with that hit."

In a lot of ways, this Dodgers team reminds me of the one from 2005, which struggled to hit all year with runners in scoring position. I can't even remember how many times manager Jim Tracy and hitting coach Tim Wallach told me that the important thing was the Dodgers were getting the opportunities, they were getting runners into scoring position, and as long as they kept doing that, then presumably, those hits eventually would start falling.

Those hits never really did start falling, and the Dodgers wound up 20 games below .500, a finish that cost Tracy and general manager Paul DePodesta their jobs. Wallach left too, of his own volition, but later came back as a minor league manager and is now the team's third base coach. The circumstances are dramatically different now, of course, with the biggest question facing the Dodgers being that of who is going to end up owning them by the end of the season, with any on-field tribulation seemingly relegated to the back burner.

Still, this team's major weakness is the same as that team's was. And at some point, to steal one of Tracy's favorite phrases, you have to ask yourself a question:

Are the Dodgers simply a bad-hitting team with men in scoring position?

The old-school baseball way of thinking would never concede such a thing. But with almost one-third of the season now gone and the remaining two-thirds taking on monumental importance, simple common sense would suggest the answer is yes.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.