- Tony Jackson, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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SAN FRANCISCO -- Sometimes, the smallest of details can turn a season around. Sometimes, but not always.
In the case of the Los Angeles Dodgers, whose collective countenance had been about as lifeless as their offense over the past few days, the ninth inning of Friday night's game didn't lead them anywhere except to a third consecutive defeat against a team that is ahead of them in the National League West standings, this time 6-5 to the San Francisco Giants before a sellout crowd of 42,847 at AT&T Park.
But it also served as a reminder of what this team is capable of, and why even now, even as they sit seven games back in the division and 4½ behind for the wild card, the Dodgers shouldn't be counted out just yet.
The real postscript of this game won't begin to be told until the two teams take the field again Saturday afternoon, about 10 minutes after the non-waiver trade deadline passes. If the Dodgers haven't made a significant move by that time, it could be another psychological hurdle to be cleared. Either way, the energy level the Dodgers bring to that game should provide the telling sign of whether this stirring but ill-fated rally means something, or means nothing.
"They were fighting," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "To me, that was a good sign. They were so frustrated before. Even though they were ready to play, it seemed like they were back on their heels a little bit. But tonight, it seemed like we were aggressive right to the end."
What the Dodgers (54-49) didn't know as they came to bat in the ninth inning trailing 6-2 was that Brian Wilson, the Giants' All-Star closer, had suffered sudden back spasms earlier in the day and wasn't available to pitch. Such developments are generally kept hidden from the opposing club for obvious reasons. But after Russell Martin led off the inning with a single, Jamey Carroll hit into a force play for the first out and Scott Podsednik tripled on a ball that just ticked off the glove of lunging Giants center fielder Andres Torres, it became apparent when Giants manager Bruce Bochy replaced Sergio Romo not with Wilson, who could plainly be seen sitting in the dugout, but with Denny Bautista.
Bautista walked Rafael Furcal, and Bochy replaced him with Jonathan Sanchez, a starter who had been kept in reserve in the bullpen in lieu of his regular between-starts throwing session. Sanchez threw a wild pitch to Andre Ethier, allowing Podsednik to scamper home, before striking Ethier out. Sanchez then hit James Loney on the outside of the right hand, and Bochy replaced Sanchez with Chris Ray. Ray got ahead of Matt Kemp 1 and 2, then threw Kemp two of those sliders in a row, the ones Kemp almost always chases and misses, except this time Kemp didn't bite on either of them and hit Ray's next pitch up the middle for an RBI single.
That made it 6-5 and put the tying run on third. Casey Blake then grounded out to end the game, but the Dodgers' season suddenly didn't seem so hopeless anymore.
Time will tell, one supposes.
Before rallying in the ninth, the Dodgers had scored two runs, the same number they had scored in each of their previous four games. They had let a strangely ineffective Tim Lincecum off the hook repeatedly in the early innings, stranding a runner on third in the first and second and leaving the bases loaded in the third, before Lincecum finally found his groove. There was, quite frankly, little reason to believe in them at that point.
But while Torre acknowledged the overall lifelessness of recent days, he disputed the suggestion that it had carried over to the first eight innings of this one.
"I thought it was all night," he said. "I thought we took some great at-bats and did some things. And then that last inning ... starting from the first swing of the bat, nobody threw their hands up. It was a team effort. We had the tying run on third base, the go-ahead run on first base and one of our RBI guys at the plate."
What that means, exactly, should become clear fairly quickly. At the risk of killing the buzz, it should be noted that moral victories don't count in the standings.
With the Dodgers trailing by only one run in the top of the fourth, Furcal came to the plate against Lincecum with two outs and nobody on and hit a ball into the right-field corner, where the Giants' Aubrey Huff couldn't field it cleanly. Furcal, apparently thinking triple all the way, never broke stride around second. But Huff made a perfect throw to second baseman Freddy Sanchez, who made a perfect relay to third baseman Pablo Sandoval, and Furcal was out at third, a violation of the age-old baseball axiom of never making the first or third out of an inning at third base.
"That was a stupid play for me," Furcal said. "It was a situation where I can't make the third out at third base. I saw the ball in the corner, where the ball got stuck. They made a pretty good play and a good throw, and the second baseman made a perfect throw."
For a team that is struggling offensively, it was another example of trying to force the issue and trying to do too much, and Furcal and the Dodgers got burned by it in what ultimately became a one-run loss. Even if Furcal had been safe at third, he wouldn't have given himself that much of an advantage by being at third. Sure, it would have allowed him to score on a wild pitch, passed ball or infield single, but those are fairly rare occurrences. With two outs, he probably would have scored easily from second on any base hit to the outfield.
After that gift out to end the fourth, Lincecum retired the next seven Dodgers hitters as the Giants built a 5-2 lead they would later stretch to 6-2.
Quote of the day
"I figure our mindset has to be that our playoffs are starting a little earlier this year. That should be our mindset every day. Every game is a must-win, especially within our division. Nobody is going to hand it to us." -- Dodgers catcher Russell Martin on the challenge the club faces over its final 59 regular-season games in its quest to reach the playoffs for the third year in a row.
Right-hander Chad Billingsley (9-5, 4.00), who has pitched 15 shutout innings over his past two starts, will be making back-to-back starts on three days' rest for the first time in his career. He did make one previous start only four days after a relief appearance, doing it on April 8, 2008, at Arizona, when he lasted only 2 1/3 innings and gave up five runs. Left-hander Barry Zito (8-6, 3.49) will start for the Giants. He has posted a 2.18 ERA in his three starts against the Dodgers this season, but he hasn't won any of them, largely because the Giants have scored a total of three runs in those games.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
The Dodgers show some life with a rally, but can they build on it now?