SAN DIEGO —
With one out in the top of the seventh inning, manager Dave Roberts called on Gavin Lux to pinch-hit for Austin Barnes.
Lux struck out looking on a 101-mph fastball by Luis Garcia, but the significance of the at-bat was more in its symbolism than its result.
The Dodgers were panicking.
The substitution had cost them their designated hitter, as Will Smith was forced to strap on his chest protector in his bottom half of the inning after starting the game as the DH. There was risk involved in removing Barnes, as the Dodgers were down by only a run and extra innings were a possibility, but these were desperate times.
The sudden disappearance of the offense has moved the Dodgers to within a loss of elimination, a 2-1 defeat to the San Diego Padres on Friday night at Petco Park putting them in a two-games-to-one deficit in their best-of-five National League Division Series.
They still haven’t scored a run against the Padres’ bullpen and the opposing starter Saturday in Game 4 will be Joe Musgrove, who pitched seven scoreless innings against the New York Mets in the deciding game of their wild-card series.
The Dodgers are batting .198 in this series against pitchers other than Padres Game 1 starter Mike Clevinger. They are now hitless in their last 19 at-bats with runners in scoring position. They are scoreless in 13 innings against Padres relievers.
“We’re not getting hits when we need to,” Freddie Freeman said. “We still had some opportunities, so if you’re going to take a positive out of something, I guess we can take that. But we need to hit tomorrow.”
Freeman said the Dodgers hitters haven’t changed their approaches, but his own at-bats offered evidence to the contrary.
With a runner on third base and the Dodgers down by a run in the fifth inning, Freeman swung at the first pitch delivered to him by Padres starter Blake Snell. He grounded out to third base.
In his next at-bat, with Trea Turner on first base and no outs in the eighth inning, Freeman again attacked the first pitch. He flied out to center field.
“I think we’re being hyperaggressive early in counts and not staying on the ball,” Roberts said.
The highest-scoring team in baseball scored five runs in the first 2 2/3 innings of its Game 1 victory but failed to record a single hit after Clevinger departed.
The 111-win team went the feast-or-famine route in its Game 2 defeat, its entire offensive output consisting of three solo home runs against Yu Darvish.
Game 3 was just more of the same — if not worse. The Dodgers were 0 for 9 with runners in scoring position. They stranded seven runners. Their only run was scored on a fifth-inning sacrifice fly by Mookie Betts.
The performance was especially frustrating because the Padres let them stay within striking distance. The Dodgers aren’t playing the Big Red Machine or the 1927 New York Yankees, and the Padres had plenty of trouble scoring themselves. Trent Grisham’s homer in the fourth inning doubled their lead to 2-0, but the lead very well could have been 5-0 or 6-0.
The Padres left 10 men on base and were one for 10 with runners in scoring position.
Before the game, Roberts had talked of how Betts could jump-start the offense. Betts was a combined one for eight in the first two games, but his problems started long before that, as he batted .206 over his final 26 regular-season games.
Roberts wouldn’t repeat his refrain about how as Betts goes, the Dodgers go, but said, “It certainly makes life easier on everyone when he’s going.”
In Game 3, Betts was going.
The Dodgers’ most expensive player led off the game with a single to center field. He drove in a run with a sacrifice fly. He hit line drives in each of his other two at-bats, including a 99-mph scorcher in the third inning that was snagged by Padres third baseman Manny Machado.
It didn’t matter.
It also didn’t matter that the previously unproductive bottom of the lineup put men on base.
No. 8 hitter Trayce Thompson and No. 9 hitter Barnes reached base to start both the third and fifth innings.
But Betts’ lineout to Machado in the third inning was followed by a strikeout by Turner, a walk by Freeman and a popup by Smith.
The runners were on second and third base in the fifth inning, as a single by Thompson was followed by a double by Barnes. Betts’ sacrifice fly scored Thompson and advanced Barnes to third base, but Turner and Freeman failed to bring him home.
With the Dodgers confronting the prospect of another October disaster, Betts preached calm.
“Tomorrow is a new day,” Betts said. “We’ll go and play. We’ll see what happens. There’s no expectations. We’ll go out there and keep playing the same game.”
They already aren’t playing the same game. They now have less than a day to rediscover themselves.