Commentary

Dodgers fall short of big expectations

Los Angeles left with sadness and questions after another NLCS defeat to Phillies

Originally Published: October 21, 2009
By Jorge Arangure Jr. | ESPN The Magazine

PHILADELPHIA -- Even losers know the scent of victory.

In a somber clubhouse Wednesday night, Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp -- eyes reddened with tears of sadness -- began to smell champagne on the clothes of several reporters who had first been in the Philadelphia Phillies' clubhouse. He had continued to speak to reporters, until the scent, and what it represented, was too strong and he had to stop midsentence.

"This guy is making me feel bad," Kemp said to a reporter who was soaked in champagne.

Soon after, Kemp smiled for the first time.

With a core of players who are in their mid-20s, the Dodgers surely will continue to contend for several more years, yet the sting of a second consecutive NLCS loss to the Phillies -- this time after a 10-4 defeat in Game 5 -- was too great for many of those players to take. For several moments, catcher Russell Martin sat slumped in his chair and could hardly say a word. Others dressed slowly and deliberately. Veterans such as Mark Loretta and Brad Ausmus -- who may have had their last legitimate chance at a championship -- were somber.

For many Dodgers, last year's postseason was a surprise. This season they expected more. The Dodgers, for all their worries about Manny Ramirez's suspension and their late-season collapse, were in first place for all but 12 days this season. Los Angeles looked formidable in sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals in the division series.

"I thought that this year we were ready to do something big," Kemp said.

Yet again, the Phillies proved too much. In the end it was not Ramirez's early shower during the ninth inning of Game 4 that doomed the Dodgers. Los Angeles simply couldn't stop Philadelphia's potent offense at Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies hit seven home runs during the three games in Philadelphia. None of the Dodgers' three starters in Philadelphia pitched into the seventh inning. Two of them did not even reach the fifth.

[+] EnlargeDodgers
Chris McGrath/Getty Images The Dodgers kept sending new pitchers to the mound, but their vaunted bullpen couldn't stop the Phillies' potent lineup.
"We have real good pitchers, but we need to get better in the rotation," Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said of what the team might try to do in the offseason.

There will be questions about Ramirez and whether he is the slugger who carried the team into the 2008 postseason or the aged and shamed slugger who was suspended for using performance-enhancing drugs this season and could barely muster four extra-base hits in two playoff series. Ramirez's home run in Game 1 against Philadelphia was his only extra-base hit of the NLCS.

"I feel empty right now," Ramirez said.

Philadelphia fans mercilessly booed and taunted Ramirez with chants of "Take a shower" in reference to Ramirez's much-publicized admission that he had been in the Dodgers' clubhouse during Game 4 when Jimmy Rollins struck his game-winning double against Los Angeles closer Jonathan Broxton.

Yet it would be unfair to say that Ramirez was not affected by Wednesday's loss.

During the bottom of the ninth inning on Wednesday, when the game was all but decided, Ramirez was not in the shower, but instead was in the dugout with teammates. He approached Jim Thome, who was standing near the dugout railing, and gently patted the veteran slugger on the back, an act of consolation for a friend and longtime teammate who has never won a championship and may not have many chances to do so. Thome turned to Ramirez. The two didn't say a word but simply nodded to each other.

"We've played a long time and we just shared a moment together, that's all," Thome said. "Manny is a good man, a good teammate. Always has been."

Ramirez has an out-clause in his contract, but it's unlikely he'll enact it. He is due a total of $20 million -- some to be paid in installments running through 2013 -- an amount he won't likely get on the open market.

"I'll let you know," Ramirez said when asked if he would opt out. "You'll see it on YouTube."

But the Dodgers' future does not lie with Ramirez. It will be cast by players such as Martin, Andre Ethier, James Loney, Clayton Kershaw and Kemp, who this season became one of the top young players in the game. It is perhaps a promising sign that the team's most talented player was also the most saddened by the loss.

"It was pretty much tougher [to lose] this year than it was last year," Kemp said. "This is tough. This is what you come to spring training for. We were better prepared than last year, but we just didn't get it done. … It will probably hurt the most when I'll turn on the TV and you see a team you could beat play in the World Series."

The team we had this year I thought was good enough to get to the promised land. We ran into a better team this week.

-- Dodgers catcher Russell Martin
If anything, the Dodgers were defiant in losing and conceded nothing to the Phillies, except that they won this series.

"The team we had this year I thought was good enough to get to the promised land," Martin said. "We ran into a better team this week."

The key is that Martin believes the Phillies were better this week and not simply the better team overall. Yet Colletti still sees a difference between the two teams. There was not a trade Colletti could have made that he thinks would have given the Dodgers a better chance in the series. Colletti believes his team needs more focus during the postseason.

Contrast Loney's popout on the first pitch with the bases loaded in the eighth inning during a last-ditch Dodgers rally with Phillies right fielder Jayson Werth's seven-pitch, first-inning at-bat, which resulted in a three-run home run that catapulted Philadelphia to an early lead.

"We still have to get to the level where when you're playing at this time of the season, you are taking every at-bat and making it special," Colletti said. "When you break it down pitch by pitch, [the Phillies] don't give up. Their at-bats are relentless. That's where we need to go."

Colletti believes that type of approach will come with experience. For now, the Dodgers must accept that the sweet smell of success came from somewhere else.

Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.