They rarely do things easily, these over-achieving Dodgers. The National League pennant still is within reach, but it will take a seventh game against the New York Mets, who aren't known to go quietly.
That much was obvious Tuesday night, as the Mets' 5-1 victory over the Dodgers in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series was a startling reality check for a Dodger team seemingly still savoring two emotional triumphs on the other coast.
Winning the pennant in 6 games, perhaps, would not have been consistent with the Dodgers' well-cultivated underdog mentality.
A 5-hitter by pitcher David Cone and a productive Met offense put the Dodgers back in their preferred position, as ace Orel Hershiser is scheduled to face Met right-hander Ron Darling in the decisive game at 5 tonight at Dodger Stadium.
Maybe the Dodgers' sluggish play in Game 6, silencing the unusually vocal 55,885 fans at Dodger Stadium, is all the incentive the Dodgers need to pull off this upset of the Mets tonight. That was the prevailing opinion in the somber Dodger clubhouse.
"It's been this way all year long for us," Manager Tom Lasorda said. "We play better when it's been like this. All we have to do is go out and play our best game tomorrow. We'll be there, I guarantee you. We've got Bulldog (Hershiser) going."
That seems as much a certainty as Lasorda testing positive for oregano. But, even with Hershiser pitching, the Dodgers will need to do more than just show up to overcome the Mets.
Tuesday's showing was the Dodgers' worst of the series. They let the Mets take control early, failed to seize upon Cone's poor start and never threatened again.
Meanwhile, Dodger pitcher Tim Leary was knocked around for 4 runs in 4-plus innings, a 2-run home run by Kevin McReynolds becoming his undoing. The bullpen kept the Dodgers reasonably close, but the offense was almost nonexistent.
Cone's brief journalism career over, he set out to do something about his pitching reputation after being hit hard and often in a Game 2 loss. The Dodgers just couldn't muster the rage they did the last time Cone pitched, the same day he criticized Hershiser and Jay Howell in a New York tabloid.
After a shaky first inning, in which many in the crowd took their best shots at the Met pitcher, Cone tamed Dodger hitters. He gave up only a run in the fifth inning to become the first pitcher in this playoff to throw a complete game.
It was a complete loss for the Dodgers. Typifying their futile to attempt to wrap up the playoffs in 6 games was the ineffective play of Kirk Gibson, a force in Games 4 and 5 but a detriment Tuesday night.
Gibson, who aggravated his left hamstring injury in the ninth inning of the Dodgers' win Monday, showed the ill effects of a cortisone injection. He popped up 4 times, including a first-inning sacrifice bunt attempt that helped Cone escape a jam.
"I'm surprised he was even in the lineup," Met Manager Davey Johnson said of Gibson. "He couldn't even get on the bus (Monday) night."
A lot of things had changed since Game 5 Monday. It seemed as if Kenny G's unconventional rendition of the national anthem on the saxophone would last longer than the Dodgers in this one.
The Mets got to Leary, still struggling with the control that made him the Dodgers' best pitcher for more than half the season, for an unearned run in the first.
At that point, a 1-0 deficit didn't seem to be a death sentence for the Dodgers. But the missed opportunity in the bottom of the first hurt.
Cone, taunted by the fans during pregame introductions and throughout the early part of the game, began as shakily as in Game 2. He walked Steve Sax on 4 pitches. He allowed Sax to take second on a wild pitch, then walked Mickey Hatcher on 5 pitches. Up came Gibson, and Dodger expectations were heightened.
But Gibson, normally a good bunter, squared around and then sent Cone's pitch skyward. The strategy was curious; the result disastrous. Cone caught the ball himself and proceeded to get Mike Marshall to fly to left field and John Shelby to strike out.
"Gibson bunting probably turned the game around," Cone said. "I made a mistake, though. I should have let it drop. After I caught it, (Gibson) said, 'You should have let it drop.' And I probably should have."
After that first-inning failure, the Dodgers did a slow dissolve.
"It was just a terrible first inning," Gibson said. "First, we gave them a run. Then, the guy (Cone) started out poorly and we can't even score off him. Quite frankly, we were lucky to still be in the game."
Added Mike Marshall: "Everybody talks about what a great series it's been. This was our bad game. The Mets' bad game may have been (Monday's 7-4 loss). So, maybe that is out of the way, and we can go back to playing the way we had."
That might not be enough if the Mets' offensive revival continues tonight.