Dodgers hit skids against Rockies
Los Angeles' loss to Colorado stuns a team close to finding its stride
DENVER -- The Los Angeles Dodgers' late-season march back to playoff contention was interrupted Saturday night -- briefly, or perhaps not -- by a sudden jolt of reality. It came in the form of a 5-3 loss to the Colorado Rockies before 45,322 at Coors Field, a game that drove home a rather sobering point.
When you dig as big a hole for yourselves as the Dodgers have this season, late-season comeback bids are fragile, whistling-past-the-graveyard kind of endeavors, always one poor pitching performance, one bad play or one untimely defeat from falling apart.
It isn't clear yet whether the Dodgers' comeback bid fell apart against the Rockies, especially with their newly minted ace, Ted Lilly, set to pitch the series finale on Sunday. But it is clear that this loss, which pushed them 5½ games back in the wild-card standings, left them stunned, if only for the moment.
"Sure, it's a little bit of a setback at this stage of the game," Dodgers third baseman Casey Blake said. "We need all we can get. But we know we're not going to win all of them from here on out. It would be nice, but it's not going to happen."
At an earlier point in the season or in a different circumstance, this would have been nothing more than a blip, the end of a four-game losing streak that was always going to end sometime anyway. But as the Dodgers fight overwhelming odds to get back into the postseason hunt, the question must be asked: Just how many games can they afford to lose?
If you accept the premise that the wild card is now the Dodgers' only possible portal into the playoffs, it is worth noting that once again there are four teams ahead of them, the Rockies pulling out of their tie with the Dodgers (67-63) by beating them for just the fourth time in 11 meetings this season.
The wild-card-leading Philadelphia Phillies already have won 72 games this season. If they continue at their current .558 winning percentage over their remaining 33 games, they will wind up with 90 or 91 wins. If they play .500 ball the rest of the way, they will end up with 88 or 89 wins. For the Dodgers to finish with 88 wins, they have to go 21-11 the rest of the way.
That, of course, doesn't even take into consideration what the three teams between the Phillies and Dodgers in the wild-card standings -- the San Francisco Giants, St. Louis Cardinals and Rockies -- do the rest of the way.
"With two outs and nobody on, we scored two in the ninth," said Dodgers manager Joe Torre, referring to Rod Barajas' two-run homer off Rockies closer Huston Street that set the final score. "To me, we're still playing for 27 outs, and that is all I can ask them to do. Ideally, you want to win every game, but that isn't going to happen. As long as we keep going out and not get frustrating and keep fighting, I'll be satisfied with all this stuff."
This loss was charged to Chad Billingsley (10-8), who turned in a quality start despite not having command of his breaking pitches. But the blame mostly could be laid at the feet of the offense, which appeared to revert to form somewhat against Rockies right-hander Jhoulys Chacin after scoring 31 runs in the previous six games and beating Ubaldo Jimenez on Friday night.
Before Barajas' ninth-inning homer, the Dodgers didn't have a hit with a man in scoring position -- but they had only two at-bats in such a situation, both of them in the fourth inning, when they left the bases loaded. The lone run the Dodgers did score in the first eight innings might have come only because of a heads-up play by Blake, who doubled to the wall in right-center with James Loney on first in the second inning.
Dodgers third-base coach Larry Bowa waved Loney home, but Blake sensed as he got to second that the play at home was going to be close, so he deliberately rounded second. Rockies second baseman Eric Young, who took the throw from right fielder Seth Smith, took the bait, throwing across the diamond to engage Blake in a rundown as Loney crossed the plate safely.
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Torre sat Manny Ramirez for the second game in a row, this time because he didn't want to subject the defensively challenged Ramirez and his thrice-injured right leg to the unusually spacious left field here. But when asked after the game whether Ramirez will play on Sunday -- when the left-field acreage at Coors isn't expected to shrink in the slightest -- Torre said he might.
"I don't know yet," Torre said. "It's certainly a possibility. ... As I said the other day, I wasn't superstitious until I became a manager. When you win a couple of games, you want to keep doing the same thing."
And when you lose one, presumably you want to change things up, which in this case might mean inserting a somewhat immobile, 38-year-old hitting star into the lineup in a game that will be critical for the Dodgers. There is still the possibility that Ramirez will be traded to the Chicago White Sox, who have secured a waiver claim on him, by Tuesday. If the parameters of such a deal already are in place -- and no one will say whether that is the case -- playing the increasingly fragile Ramirez could mean risking an injury that would kill the entire deal.
By the way, Ramirez was used as a pinch hitter for the first time in the four games he hasn't started since he returned a week ago from his most recent disabled-list stint. Although the crowd reaction he got earlier this week in Milwaukee was one of indifference, the Coors faithful still booed him roundly when he came to the plate as the potential tying run with the Dodgers trailing 3-1.
They also cheered wildly when he subsequently struck out against Chacin, ending the seventh inning with a man on first.
It was clear from the moment Dodgers reliever Ronald Belisario entered the game to start the bottom of the seventh that he had little control. He hit the first batter he faced, pinch hitter Ryan Spilborghs. Two batters later, Carlos Gonzalez took Belisario over the wall in right-center, giving the Rockies a 5-1 lead.
So when Belisario immediately followed that by hitting Troy Tulowitzki on the left thigh, plate umpire Marty Foster -- who had never issued any kind of warning in the game to that point -- immediately ejected Belisario.
Barajas, who as the Dodgers catcher was the closest player to Foster, immediately rose from his crouch, turned around and raised his arms in disbelief.
"He said he was just going by the rulebook," Barajas said. "I don't know what is in the rulebook, but I thought the only way you could throw a pitcher out of a game is if you see intent. To me, there was no intent whatsoever. The balls here are slick [from the altitude] for a sinkerball guy. ... It was obvious he didn't have the greatest control. He is a breaking-ball pitcher who usually throws to his arm side. If he doesn't have control, his breaking ball is going to go inside to a righty or away from a lefty."
Torre immediately came out of the dugout and headed straight to Foster for an explanation.
"I guess after the home run, they're a little more sensitive," Torre said. "It's the umpire's choice, he said, to either warn the pitcher or throw him out. He said he had a gut feeling. He said it's safety first, more than anything else."
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"My off-speed stuff just wasn't there. You're going to have days like this. I was just battling trying to locate my fastball and pitch with that. I still mixed in some off-speed stuff and just tried to change speeds [with the fastball] as much as I could." -- Billingsley, who lost for the first time in four starts. Billingsley got away with all five of his walks (one was intentional), but he had zero strikeouts, and the Rockies scored all their runs off him on RBI singles by Tulowitzki and Melvin Mora in the fourth inning and the second home run in two nights by Todd Helton -- just his fifth and sixth of the season -- leading off the bottom of the sixth.
That blast to right field by Helton snapped a streak of 92 consecutive innings by Billingsley without giving up a home run. It was just the second home run hit off Billingsley this season by a left-handed hitter, the first one since Arizona's Stephen Drew took him deep on April 14.
Dodgers left-hander Ted Lilly (8-8, 3.27 ERA), a strong candidate for National League Pitcher of the Month honors, will try to win for the sixth time in six starts since being traded to the Dodgers by the Chicago Cubs on July 31. He has a 7.04 ERA in two career starts at Coors. Rockies right-hander Jason Hammel (8-7, 4.35) is 6-1 at home this season with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of better than 3-to-1.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
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