Dodgers losing grip on season

LOS ANGELES -- The sobering reality hit in the top of the sixth inning Saturday, just after Los Angeles Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp had been ejected for arguing from the dugout by a plate umpire who was a minor league fill-in and had the short fuse to prove it. Actually, if you follow these Dodgers at all, sobering realities hit almost every day, so this one was really no different, but it was at least interesting.

By the time of Kemp's unceremonious exit, the Dodgers already trailed by a run in what would become a 6-1 loss to the Los Angeles Angels before 41,108 at Dodger Stadium. When that fifth inning ended, Kemp -- he of the .329 average, 21 homers, 60 RBIs, 21 steals and .418 on-base percentage -- was replaced in center field by Tony Gwynn.

It was at this point the Dodgers had six position players on the field who had combined this season for exactly zero home runs. Throw in the pitcher's spot (also zero), and you were left with right fielder Andre Ethier, who has seven, and first baseman James Loney, who has four.

This is a big reason the Dodgers are in dire straits. Granted, manager Don Mattingly didn't exactly put his best lineup on the field, citing the need to give the colossally slumping Juan Uribe a day off and the need to rest Dioner Navarro for a day game after a night game, and Casey Blake remained unavailable to do anything except pinch hit because of that nagging arthritic condition in his neck, and Rafael Furcal is still on the disabled list. But really, what was the alternative? Would Uribe, who has five hits in his last 37 at-bats and all of four homers for the season, have made it any better?

These days, for Mattingly, thanks to a combination of injuries and disappointing individual performances on a club that even fully healthy appeared on paper to be a marginal contender at best, it's basically a matter of picking his poison. And that, perhaps more than anything else, is why this season seems to be slipping away.

"I don't like the way it's going, that's for sure," Mattingly said. "But I have obviously seen enough baseball to know that if we can win three or four in a row, which we haven't been able to put four together yet, but we need to win three or four without then [losing] three or four. We are going to have to go for an extended period of time when we're playing pretty good and feeling like we're going to win every day."

Mattingly's words are equal parts hope and denial, basically whistling-past-the-graveyard kind of stuff. But the baseball season is long, and the Dodgers don't even reach the halfway mark of theirs until Tuesday. Even if the evidence is overwhelming that you're basically going nowhere until next year, you can't surrender to that or you will go absolutely nuts thinking about the three-plus months of day-in, day-out baseball you still have to play.

And so, you rationalize. And if anyone asks you if you're losing hope, you don't admit it, either to them or to yourself.

"I don't think anybody in here feels that way," Blake said. "I don't know if they would say it if they did. I came over here in '08, and we were 6½ games back with a month left to play and we came back and won. We know we haven't played our best baseball. We really haven't played good baseball on a consistent basis. If that can happen and we can have a couple of good weeks, a lot can happen."

The notion the Dodgers haven't played their best baseball might be a consolatory one -- and, probably, a true one -- but it really doesn't help them at this point. There are a million reasons the Dodgers have faltered, whether it be injuries, their sputtering offense, their shaky bullpen and all those maddening failures to get a man home from third with less than two outs, but you can't get back all those games or all that time.

The Dodgers (34-44) are 10 games below .500 and getting dangerously close to a double-digit deficit in the standings, as well. From a mathematical sense, this is a long way from being a lost cause. But from a practical sense, it is certainly starting to feel that way. Mattingly has said many times in recent days that his goal is for the club to get back to .500 by the All-Star break, something that now would require the Herculean feat of going at least 12-2 the rest of the way, so forget that.

Just to get there by the end of the season, the Dodgers have to go 47-37 the rest of the way. That would give them an 81-81 finish. And let's face it, even in the National League West, that won't get you anywhere near the playoffs.

For now, though, time marches on, and so does the Dodgers' schedule. There is another game Sunday, and they will show up to play it because the rules say they have to. It could be the beginning of that resurgence Mattingly talked about. Or, more likely, not. There are no miracle fixes, and that includes Major League Baseball possibly taking over the team next Thursday if owner Frank McCourt can't make payroll. If and when that happens, the Dodgers' roster will remain unchanged, and so, probably, will their results on the field.

Mattingly, who as a player was always one to toe the line, is pretty much the same as a manager, never the sort to rock the boat by saying anything inflammatory. But there was a moment during his postgame meeting with reporters Saturday when he seemed flummoxed, when he simply couldn't find the right words to answer a question about the makeup of his roster and the limitations imposed upon him as far as putting a serviceable lineup on the field.

"You certainly want to put a lineup out there that you feel like gives you your best chance even on a day when you're giving guys a breather," he said, and then, with a shrug of the shoulders, he added, "It's where we're at."

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.