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Lyle Spencer

High expectations make end tough to take for LA

High expectations make end tough to take for LA

High expectations make end tough to take for LA
LOS ANGELES -- Mark Ellis, one of the Dodgers' smartest players, made what he called "a bad read" and was thrown out at third base trying to stretch a double just as all the momentum seemed to have swung his team's way.

Matt Kemp, moments later, swung through a slider out of the strike zone and flung his bat away in disgust. It was to be his last at-bat of the season.

These two seventh-inning acts seemed to symbolize the misfortunes of the 2012 Dodgers. A gut-wrenching 4-3 loss to the Giants on Tuesday night was the final act, eliminating the Dodgers from the postseason while clinching a National League Wild Card ticket for the Cardinals.

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"If anything, we all wanted it a little too much," Ellis said. "I think that happened with all of us."

Aware of the silence and emptiness in the home clubhouse at Dodger Stadium as he sat in his office, manager Don Mattingly praised his team's effort.

"I'm never going to fault a guy for wanting it too much," Mattingly said.

If Ellis and Kemp were digging perhaps too deep to bring their team back after A.J. Ellis' two-run homer earlier in the inning, it was nothing new.

When so much is expected, the natural impulse is to push harder. This is a game that doesn't always reward aggression, with squeezing the bat too tightly or running the bases too aggressively. Less sometimes is more.

In a season that brought new ownership and dramatic trades and sky-high expectations among fans and media, the Dodgers managed to finally find what had been missing with an inspiring finishing kick.

That's why it was so quiet in their clubhouse when it came, as Mattingly aptly put it, to a "screeching halt" at the hands of the NL West champions from San Francisco.

"The last eight, 10 days is what this team's about," Mark Ellis said. "The way we're playing right now, you feel you can beat anybody. We didn't want the season to end."

Ellis, for one, had no problem with the inflated expectations accompanying the high-profile new arrivals climbing aboard with the season in progress.

"I'd rather have expectations, high expectations, than be on a team without expectations," Ellis, the team's capable second baseman, said. "I would never say that was unfair.

"We had really high expectations for ourselves. That's why it's such a tough day. It's just a reaction to not doing what you want to do."

The Dodgers were a run down in the seventh when Ellis stroked a drive to center. Watching center fielder Angel Pagan wrestle with it off the wall, Ellis thought third was within reach. Instead he became the second out of the inning on a strong relay.

Shane Victorino followed with a triple and was stranded when Kemp flailed away at George Kontos' 2-2 delivery.

The Dodgers are nine games above .500 heading into the season finale on Wednesday night. They'll scatter when it's over, carrying memories of a season of extraordinary promise that has an unhappy ending.

"For me, personally, in my career this is the first time I've had those high expectations," veteran southpaw Chris Capuano said, having lasted only three-plus innings while giving up solo homers to Buster Posey and Joaquin Arias.

"Playing games toward the end of the season that were really meaningful, the experiences in the second half, I'm going to go home and reflect on this. Guys in here want to win, want to be part of something special. To do that, you've got to give 100 percent and be ready to play every day, be disciplined.

"I've never been more excited and hungry going into an offseason. All of us are going to give ourselves three or four weeks to sort of let your body heal, but I'm already itching to get started. I can't really explain what happened, but the last week, the team kind of jelled. It's a feeling I'd love to carry over into next year."

Capuano and Aaron Harang were solid free-agent additions to a rotation fronted by Clayton Kershaw, arguably the best pitcher in the game. Veterans Josh Beckett and Joe Blanton arrived in trades. Chad Billingsley was pitching at an exceptionally high level when an elbow injury forced him to the disabled list on Aug. 25 for the rest of the season.

The rotation is solid, and the bullpen is deep, with power arms in abundant supply. Brandon League, another in-season addition, delivered lights-out work in the ninth inning down the stretch.

The offense was the problem. It sputtered and misfired, unable to mesh for long stretches, in part because centerpiece Kemp was never himself after a blazing start. Hamstring and shoulder issues took him out of commission for 51 games and hindered him for many others.

While blockbuster deals with the Phillies for Blanton and Victorino, with the Marlins for Hanley Ramirez and with the Red Sox for Adrian Gonzalez, Beckett, Carl Crawford and Nick Punto kept the headlines coming, there was the complex matter of integrating all these new athletes (except for Crawford) into the team's fabric.

"I think everybody's curious about that," Mark Ellis said when asked if he's wondering just how good this collection of talent can be with a full season together, fresh slates all around.

Along the way, there were breakthroughs and breakouts from a variety of players -- notably Luis Cruz at third base and A.J. Ellis behind the plate. Both produced in the clutch and played with an endearing passion that did not escape the attention of fans.

"Guys kind of grew together there," Mattingly said of the six-game winning streak that began in San Diego after a productive team meeting and ended Tuesday night. "That has to move us forward, that feeling that this is what we're capable of. We've gotta work. You can't expect that it's going to go good; you've got to make it go good.

"At the end of the day, this last section of games is a time that's going to help us, fuel us. There are going to be big expectations for us. That's good. That's what we want."

Spring Training, and a chance to get it right, is only 3 1/2 months away.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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