They had their chance. For one prolonged, precious moment Tuesday night, the Dodgers had complete control of this crazy race for the National League's second wild card.
The St. Louis Cardinals had just lost. The Dodgers needed only to win to push their season to the final day, to push the Cardinals to the brink, to put Clayton Kershaw on the mound for a chance at a tiebreaker playoff game.
For three sweaty, swaggering October hours at Dodger Stadium, the Dodgers were never more alive.
And then — pitch, miss, slide, miss, swing, miss — they were done.
A Dodgers season marked by rich hope for the future ended with the team dead broke in the present, 24 consecutive years without a championship for those who are counting, and aren't we all?
The Dodgers, playing for everything, could not beat a San Francisco Giants team playing for nothing, losing,4-3, to become mathematically eliminated from postseason contention in the 161st of 162 games.
They not only lost, but they lost with the tying run on second base in the ninth inning, Mark Ellis' soft line drive landing in the glove of center fielder Angel Pagan and dropping more than 40,000 screaming fans back into their seats.
Just like that, the wild card folded.
"Everything kind of comes to a screeching halt,'' said Manager Don Mattingly quietly afterward.
Just like that, a team that underwent the most expensive summer remodeling in baseball history shuts it doors for the winter.
"You have to allow the pain to be what fuels you for the winter,'' said Mattingly. "This is what has to fuel you.''
As Mattingly rubbed his eyes in his crowded office, Dodgers Chairman Mark Walter and club President Stan Kasten sat quietly nearby. Outside in the clubhouse, there were two dozen players silently stuck to their rich leather chairs that kid who didn't want to go home. The televisions were switched off. The music was not playing. The expressions were blank.
"You walk through that room, you see huge disappointment,'' said Mattingly. "You have guys who don't care, they wouldn't be like that.''
In St. Louis, on a night they lost to the Cincinnati Reds, the Cardinals popped champagne. At Chavez Ravine, the Dodgers simply watched their late-season bubble burst with the sort of questionable play that has been the trademark of a hurriedly rebuilt team trying to understand each other.
Said Clayton Kershaw: "It took a little too long for us to figure it out.''
Said Matt Kemp: "We kind of failed.''
The first failure Tuesday occurred in fifth inning, when the Giants expanded a 2-1 lead to 4-1 after a managerial move that was probably first-guessed by most of Los Angeles County . With the Giants' Joaquin Arias on second base with two outs, Mattingly walked Pagan to pitch to Marco Scutaro, who is only the National League's third leading hitter since the All-Star break.
Yes, Scutaro was two-for-19 against Dodgers pitcher Jamey Wright. But few hitters in baseball are hotter, and Mattingly knew this better than anyone. In a recent game between these two teams, Scutaro beat the Dodgers with a single after — you guessed it — Mattingly walked another to pitch to him.
Yet Mattingly did it again. And Scutaro beat him again, lining a two-run double to right field to give the Giants a lead they never lost.
"It was one of those moves that, if it doesn't work, people question ... but it's one of those moves that you make very time,'' said Mattingly.
For a while, anyway, Dodgers fans will be seeing Scutaro in their sleep. But then it got even worse.
A.J. Ellis closed the gap to 4-3 in the seventh inning with a two-run homer to right-center field on a battling nine-pitch at-bat in which he hit three straight foul balls before going deep. It was great stuff. And then it was tough stuff.
One out later, Mark Ellis was thrown out foolishly trying to stretch a double to the center field wall into a triple. Then, after Shane Victorino hit a triple into the right-field corner that should have tied the game, Kemp stranded him with a strikeout that ended with Kemp pin-wheeling his bat into the ground.
Said Ellis: "I hit the ball good. I saw [Pagan] took a bad angle to it and had a long way to go to pick it up.''
Said Mattingly: "He got excited.''
So the season is over, forever to be mourned by one guy more than most. Have you seen Chairman Mark Walter watch a game? He's the white-haired guy jumping up and down in the owner's box?
The biggest positive from this season is not only the big money spent by the new Dodgers owners, but the big emotion shown by a new boss who seemingly cares as much as any fan.
"It's been more fun than I ever really expected,'' said Walter, standing behind home plate at batting practice, acting like a giddy middle-aged dude at his first game. "I expected it to be a lot of fun and it was more.''