How tough could that be?
The Dodgers found out with an embarrassing 3-6 record through a "soft" spot in the schedule that included four consecutive losses with a magic number of one to clinch the National League West.
On Wednesday night, they were lifeless, scratching out one single in a 5-0 loss to the Padres. The Dodgers clinched a postseason berth Friday, but have been hauling champagne all over the country waiting to throw a party. Instead, they've lost five of six, scoring two runs in the past three games.
"We'll open the champagne Friday," promised Manny Ramirez.
But what's with the delay? Why stagger to the finish against the worst teams in the league?
"I'm sure there was a little bit of looking ahead," said veteran Mark Loretta. "There's been more anticipation. It's hard to start a game and already be thinking of winning the game without playing the game. We have to get back to just playing the game."
Fittingly, the clinching could come Thursday, when the Dodgers won't even play. Second-place Colorado hosts Milwaukee while the Dodgers are off. A Rockies loss would assure the Dodgers of consecutive division titles for the first time since 1977-78 and a celebration at a later date. If the Rockies win Thursday, they stay alive with a chance to sweep the Dodgers three games in Los Angeles and steal the division.
"Our situation is interesting -- we haven't clinched yet, but we're going to the playoffs," said manager Joe Torre. "You don't want to finish the season on a bum note. Momentum-wise, it doesn't help going into the postseason like this."
Torre said he will spend the day off with family. Most players said they wouldn't be watching the Rockies' day game. Andre Ethier, 1-for-29 on the trip, said he's going to the local batting cage.
"Go back to my humble beginnings," Ethier said.
The Dodgers haven't only spent most of their division lead, which at one time was 9 1/2 games. They've also just about blown the home-field advantage in the postseason, as they lead Philadelphia by only one-half game.
"We had four games to win one and we lost four in a row," said Matt Kemp, whose first-inning single was the lone hit. "The way we're playing the games down here, we should celebrate at home and not on the field. But St. Louis is doing the same thing. The pressure is on Colorado, not on us. Maybe we're just getting the bad stuff out of the way. It's time to be good, around our fans, back in the house where the support will be straight."
While the offense continued flat (winner Clayton Richard pitched seven innings), the Dodgers didn't get quality starting pitching, either. Jon Garland, whose postseason role is undetermined, didn't help his cause by allowing five runs (four earned) on seven hits in only 3 1/3 innings. The crusher was Kevin Kouzmanoff's three-run homer.
"In my eyes, it was absolutely terrible," Garland said. "Make mistakes and any team can beat you. I fell behind a lot of guys, was forced to throw strikes and they're a good-hitting team. They proved that the last two days."
By contrast, Vicente Padilla made his first relief appearance since 2003, pitching two scoreless innings and impressing the manager.
"He looked good," said Torre. "I like his stuff and the way he calculates out there. He seems to have a plan. He looks like he's locked in."
When Torre told Padilla he would be pitching out of the bullpen this week, Torre insisted to the media it didn't mean Padilla hadn't made the cutdown from the six-man starting rotation the Dodgers have been using to the four-man rotation they will need in the postseason.
Padilla could be a starter against the Phillies, but he's also shown Torre he can be used in relief if Chad Billingsley is a starter against the Cardinals.
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less