Thursday September 4th, 2014

The Nationals and the Dodgers wanted to win their series-concluding game on Wednesday afternoon, but the Dodgers needed it more. The Nationals entered with a seven-game lead in the NL East, and Baseball Prospectus pegged their chance of taking the division at a robust 98.5 percent. The Dodgers, meanwhile, had seen their advantage over the Giants in the NL West shrink from 5 1/2 games, as of three weeks ago, to two.

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Still, both clubs exhausted themselves on Wednesday, in a game that was scoreless through the bottom of the seventh and ended up a 14-inning, five-hour-and-34 minute epic in which the sides combined to score 13 runs and use 51 players. The Nationals won 8-5 in large measure due to the heroics of their hobbled first baseman Adam LaRoche, whose sore back kept him on the bench until the ninth and yet who finished with five RBI, including the ultimate game-winner.

But they also won due to a continuing, virtually inexplicable weakness on the part of their opponent. When the bases are loaded, the Dodgers — the league’s highest-paid team and the NL’s sixth highest-scoring one — transmogrify into a roster filled with Jose Molinas.

In fact, when the bases are loaded, the Dodgers are looking up at the Rays' catcher’s .182 batting average. They collectively entered Wednesday hitting a majors-worst .179 in what is normally an offense’s most desirable situation, and the trend held when it mattered most. In the bottom of the 10th with the game knotted at three, they loaded the bases with a walk and a pair of singles, only to receive consecutive strikeouts from Adrian Gonzalez and Juan Uribe.

They were presented with the same situation the next inning — tie game, bases juiced, one out — but this time Drew Butera popped out to third, and then Dee Gordon whiffed.

It was enough to exasperate even the redoubtable broadcaster Vin Scully.

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“You know, the Dodgers, when you look at it, are a questionable first-place team,” Scully said during the bottom of the 11th. “It’s really a shock to realize how poorly they have played with the bases loaded. You expect a heck of a lot more, to be honest, from a first-place team.”

When LaRoche roped a two-run, bases-loaded single in the top of the 12th to briefly give his club a two-run lead, Scully even engaged in a little light trash talk on his behalf. “In case you weren’t looking, that’s how you do it,” he intoned.  

Scully might have been directing his comments at any one of the Dodgers’ key hitters, most of whom seem to have developed a communicable bases-loaded anemia. Hanley Ramirez this season is 2-for-12 with three men on, and Matt Kemp, Gordon and Yasiel Puig are somehow a combined 0-for-25.

It would be easy to chalk it up as a statistical oddity. We are, after all, talking about a total team sample size of just 99 at-bats. That argument, however, becomes difficult to maintain when you consider how the Dodgers performed with the bags full last year, with a lineup consisting of largely the same players. Then, as now, they were last in batting average, at .190. Between 2013 and '14, they’re not only dead last in bases-loaded batting average, but in on-base percentage (.203), slugging (.250) and, unsurprisingly, home runs (one). A sample size of 232 at-bats is not all that small.

After the game, manager Don Mattingly tried to look on the bright side. There certainly is one, in part because the Giants’ 9-2 loss to the Rockies kept Los Angeles’ divisional lead at two games.

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“This is a good game for us,” Mattingly told Ken Gurnick of MLB.com. “The positives are our effort, determination and perseverance. That’s what will get us where we want to go. We’ve been a club all year that has not seemed to come from behind, but the last couple times we’ve put the game right on the line. I’m really happy about a lot of stuff. Obviously, we had a few chances to win the game that didn’t work out. But overall, a lot of good things.”

That is the sound of a manager who is out of answers, as far as how to fix his talented club’s bizarre weakness. Mattingly and his hitting coach, Mark McGwire, as players combined to bat .304 with the bases loaded, with 20 grand slams. If anyone knew what to do to address the problem, you would think they would and would have done it already. At this point, all they have left is hope.

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