- Eric Neel, Page 2 columnist
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LOS ANGELES -- The Dodgers clubhouse was understandably quiet late Monday night after Game 4 of the National League Championship Series. The music that had come to characterize the Manny era and the late-season push to the playoffs was noticeably absent and players spoke in hushed tones, still feeling the sting of Philadelphia's four-run eighth inning and 3-1 series lead.
They had come tantalizingly close to tying the series, only to see it slip away.
"I was out there on the field and I was thinking, 'We're going to do this,'" Manny Ramirez said. "Everybody on this team played their hearts out."
"I think we're in a little bit of shock," said Dodgers third baseman Casey Blake, who hit a home run in the sixth inning to give the Dodgers a 4-3 lead. "That game was such a whirlwind of emotions."
As the Dodgers and Phillies head into Game 5 on Wednesday night in Los Angeles, the facts for L.A. are simple and stark: win and play another day; lose and the season is over.
Moments like this tend to make philosophers and romantic heroes of ballplayers. At a loss to explain why their stalwart bullpen was unable to hold a two-run lead with six outs to go, and unwilling to rehearse every painful two-seam hanger and almost-blocked wild pitch, the Dodgers leaned Monday on the comforts of old maxims and professed hopes.
"We won't change anything. We're playing tough," catcher Russell Martin said. "You're gonna make mistakes, you just have to move on after you make them."
"We just need to go out there and play like we did [in Game 4]," first baseman James Loney said. "We played hard [in Game 4] and we'll play hard again on Wednesday."
"We just need to come back fighting, fight to see another day," center fielder Matt Kemp said. "We can bounce back."
The lines feel like they are lifted from a Crash Davis-Nuke LaLoosh tutorial. They feel like they are masking the real pain and disorientation of the moment, like they're just things you say in lieu of shattering a water cooler with a bat or shouting at the baseball devils who have brought suffering upon you. And they certainly are -- "We needed that game," Blake confessed as he dressed to head home Monday -- but there is a kind of desperate wisdom in them, too.
While the postgame analysts discussed Joe Torre's decision to bring in reliever Cory Wade to face Shane Victorino, and the local fans expressed frustration over right fielder Andre Ethier's double-play ground ball with Manny on deck and nobody out in the bottom of the eighth inning, the Dodgers' players, like those of any club on the brink of elimination, wrapped themselves in the clarity and simple certainty of the work ahead of them, and adopted the only reasonable way to approach that work.
"I know it can be done," said Blake, a member of that Indians team. "I've seen it happen."
They talked about times during the regular season when they put a halt to extended losing streaks and went on a little run to turn their fortunes around.
"We had to work hard to get where we are right now," Martin said. "We've done it before."
They talked, the way baseball players do, about "playing baseball."
"I told them to be back here on Wednesday ready to play baseball," Torre explained. "We have to win the remaining games. We can only do it one at a time. I sense we'll be back right here with the right attitude."
They talked about maybe being loose, with nothing left to lose.
"Let's just see what's going to happen on Wednesday," Ramirez said.
They smiled and shrugged and faced up to where they are: down 3-1 in a four-game series. Down, but not quite dead yet.
"We're still in this," Loney offered with a defiant little smile, pulling his socks off like they had betrayed him, like they were part of what was and not what is to come. "It's not over."
What do you do when you are down 3-1, when the good vibrations you were feeling just a week ago in Chicago seem a distant memory, when your head is tempted by nasty little what-if thought loops that intensify the pain you're feeling and change exactly nothing about your circumstance? You get your mind ready to suit up come Wednesday. You turn a page. You try, with every answer you give to a postgame interviewer, to be in the hope of the present moment instead of the frustration of the immediate past.
It's reasonable if you're a Phillies fan that you're looking ahead to the World Series before the first pitch of Game 5 in the NLCS. It's reasonable if you're a baseball pundit to begin thinking about how Philadelphia will match up with either the Rays or Red Sox.
As for the Dodgers, clichéd as it sounds, they're going to hold out hope, even if it comes in the form of the things they told themselves Monday night.
As Blake put it: "We need to grasp onto every positive feeling we can get."
Eric Neel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.
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