2011 Dodgers defined themselves

The last pitch of the Los Angeles Dodgers' season was thrown Wednesday night about 20 miles east of where the first tosses of spring smacked into catchers' mitts at the end of February.

It's warmer now, outside in the late September heat of Arizona that will break for fall soon, and inside the Dodgers' clubhouse, where a team that could have been overshadowed by the trials and transgressions of its owner refused to let its season be defined by him.

Officially Don Mattingly's Dodgers came back from 14 games under .500 on July 6 to finish 82-79. A long way by any measure. But didn't it feel farther?

This wasn't just a long season, it was the longest Dodgers season in recent memory. And yet when it finally ended Wednesday night with a 7-5 win over the Diamondbacks, it didn't feel that way anymore. Because for the last two and half months, the team on the field has been making beautiful noise.

On the same day Matt Kemp took his final swing and Clayton Kershaw took a final bow for a season well played, news of another round of lawsuits between owner Frank McCourt, Fox and Major League Baseball finally seemed 3,000 miles away.

There are a lot of explanations for how the Dodgers ended in this easy place. The best one is simply that they played hard and played on. Along the way they offered clues to the content of their character. As the season ended happily and hopefully, it's worth a last look back.

A few weeks before the season began, I sat with Mattingly in his office before a spring training game and asked a simple question:

What made you want to do this?

"I think it was my last three or four years as a player," he said, starting at the beginning. "We'd play against these teams and I just liked the way they played, how they did it.

"Really it was the Oakland teams, Tony La Russa's teams, starting me thinking on [becoming a manager one day]. They kind of stomped you. They'd beat you and they'd get you down, then they'd step on you a little bit. I liked that."

He smiled a bit at the memory, but also because we both knew this Dodgers team could never match the talent on those great A's teams.

"There's an attitude you play with," Mattingly said. "That's the part of managing that I want to accomplish more than anything. Because your personality gets to come out a little bit. In the team, the way they play.

"Somebody asks what kind of team are you going to have? I don't know. But if they will play hard every day, if my guys will get ready and play hard every day, I've done my job."

Throughout this season Mattingly has said some version of that statement hundreds of times. At times you wondered if his voice would change at all. If his resolve would crack, even a little, as the losses mounted and the drama everywhere else grew uglier and weirder.

It never did.

"There's times you get down, there's no doubt about that," Mattingly said one afternoon in late July. "You lose games in a row, it's hard. But something has to keep getting you out of bed."

"So who gets you out of bed?" I asked.

"I do," he said. "I do because I know where I want us to go."

Late one night in a sad clubhouse in Anaheim in early July, I was looking for shortstop Dee Gordon. He would be leaving the big leagues soon now that Rafael Furcal had come off the disabled list.

Furcal was making too much money and had been too important to this team to share time with a kid still figuring out how to hit leftys. Gordon was too good not to play every day and keep growing the right way.

Like the rest of the team, Gordon was deflated after the 3-1 loss to the Angels that night. It was the worst kind of loss. Russell Branyan -- a guy who'd just been released by his ninth team in 14 seasons -- had hit a two-run, pinch-hit home run to win the game and keep the Dodgers 11 games under .500.

If this was Gordon's last night up here for a while, it was going to be a bitter one.

But when I came up to shake his hand and say goodbye for now, he was having none of it.

"I'm not trying to go anywhere," Gordon said, refusing to accept the situation or any sympathy. "I want to stay up here. This is where I want to be."

Hiroki Kuroda has said little in his four seasons with the Dodgers. His actions on July 31 spoke for him.

To get why he turned down a chance to trade up in the standings by accepting a trade out of Los Angeles you have to get him: his culture, his character and why he decided to come back here last winter.

"I love my teammates, I love this city," Kuroda said last November. "So if the Dodgers wanted me, I wanted to come back."

Those words meant something to him at the time. They meant even more as the trade deadline approached in July. The Dodgers had always wanted him. Now, even though there wasn't much to love -- or much in the way of run support coming his way -- he wanted the Dodgers.

Although a set of young prospects would have been nice, it felt better to see so much pride.

"In a way, it's refreshing,'' Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti told ESPNLosAngeles.com's Tony Jackson. "He made a commitment to sign here, and he wants to fulfill that commitment.

"Knowing him like I know him, I'm not surprised that is the way he felt. In my heart of hearts, I would have been more surprised if he had said, 'OK, I'll go somewhere else.'"

On the morning after Major League Baseball seized control of the day-to-day operations of the Dodgers, Kenley Jansen sprinted up the steps of the lower bowl of the stadium like he needed to sweat something out. He was angry -- at himself.

Two days earlier he'd had his worst performance ever, giving up five runs on three hits and two walks while recording just one out in a 10-1 loss to the Atlanta Braves.

"I am better than this," he said. "I know I am better than this."

Jansen had been a revelation in 2010, just a year after being converted from catcher. But this season had started terribly. His control was gone, his fastball lacked life and his confidence was going to fray if things didn't improve quickly.

The ground underneath the franchise shook mightily the day before, but Jansen had other things on his mind.

"I just have to throw like I know I can throw," he said in a mostly empty clubhouse, early that morning before a day game. "I know I can do better."

A month later the Dodgers sent him down to the minors to work things out under dimmer lights. Two months later he had to sit out while doctors examined him for an abnormal heartbeat.

He could have sat out the rest of the year and started over in the spring. Instead he did better. The last two months of the season, he pitched like the most dominant reliever in all of baseball, leading the league with 16.1 strikeouts per nine innings.

In his final game of the season on Tuesday night. He faced four batters, walked one and struck out the other three. They were his 30th, 31st and 32nd strikeouts in 13 innings in September.

"You can't hit him right now," Gordon said. "The way he's pitching, no one can hit him."

It seems fitting, in a way, that a season that once felt so long ended one game short. The Dodgers played just 161 games in 2011 because a game in Washington got rained out and neither team amounted to enough for it to be made up.

It seems wrong, too, though. This team ended its season just 20 miles east of where it began, but it has traveled a great distance and grown into something special along the way.

The Dodgers earned that 162nd game. Who cares when or where it would've been played. It would've been warm outside and the Dodgers would've played hard.

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.