LOS ANGELES – Far from Manny's former fishbowl and The Ed Hardy boys lies the last pure division race in baseball.
Far from Ozzie's carbonated dramas and Wrigleyville's oozing dread, and farther still from the Manuel-a-Manuel NL East, all of which have their charms, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Arizona Diamondbacks are just decent enough, just crummy enough, just situated enough to play a winner-take-some September.
And, oh, just lucky enough.
All things considered, Dodgers manager Joe Torre mused Friday night, "Where we are right now is about as good as you could ask for."
All things considered, Bob Melvin observed, "We thought all along the experience of last year would show up. We'll find out about that now."
We didn't say it would be a good division race. But without the security (or even the distant hope) of the wild card, there is at least the potential for fleeting entertainment, like the last glow of a summer night's firefly.
Smeared across a sidewalk.
What we seem to have here are a couple of five-game losing streaks waiting to happen, and three weeks for the Dodgers and Diamondbacks to resist the pull toward the really mediocre baseball they've played most of the season.
Unless, of course, mediocre is enough to win it.
Really, I'm leaning toward that.
The game doesn't generally reward five months of bloated, imprecise baseball. But on an L.A. evening that held just enough humidity to encourage Derek Lowe's sinkerball, the Diamondbacks and Dan Haren lost 7-0 and remained in first place, the Dodgers drew to within a half-game of first place on the strength of Andre Ethier's 5-for-5, and the rest of the league readied their petitions for membership in the NL West.
Life, such as it is, has become most tenuous for the Diamondbacks. When their offense was ferocious, they leaned on the front end of their starting rotation. When their offense tanked, they leaned on the front end of their starting rotation. When their bullpen started to come around, they leaned on the front end of their starting rotation.
Now they are almost a week into September, all their hardball sins forgiven, and they can't get a decent start from their co-aces, Brandon Webb and Haren. A couple of weeks ago a near lock for his second Cy Young Award, Webb has lost consecutive starts to the San Diego Padres and Dodgers. Spectacularly, at that. Speculation is growing he might again be grinding against some mild tendinitis somewhere, based solely on the way he has pitched and nothing else.
"No," Melvin said. "That's inaccurate."
Then there's Haren. In four months plus a start into August, he had allowed five runs or more in two starts. Since, he has allowed five runs or more in four of six starts, most recently on this Friday night in L.A., a couple of hours after Melvin said of the series, "We've seen this one coming for a little bit." Typically, one would step from the path of that bus, but Haren kept hitting Ethier's bat because it was Ethier's turn to hit in front of Manny Ramirez.
Haren, like Webb after he was knocked around by the Dodgers in Arizona, slipped out of the clubhouse before he had a chance to explain another September dud.
A scout offered his opinion as he rose from his seat behind home plate, the observation necessary because Haren chose not to be available.
"Looks hurt to me," the scout said. "Not as many splits as he used to throw, and he's really struggling with his command. I didn't see the usual movement, and the command was sub-par. He also kind of looked like he might be tipping his pitches. The Dodgers had great hacks."
That could explain the five runs in four innings against Haren.
Then, the offense has been familiarly unpredictable. In their past 11 games, the Diamondbacks have scored fewer than three runs seven times. They've lost all seven. It's no way to conduct a division race, which is why division races so rarely look quite like this, and certainly not in the last decade-plus of Torre's career.
"It's still baseball," Torre said.
He shrugged, as if to add, "Barely."
"That's the one thing you have to remind yourself," he said. "It's still a baseball game."
Not all that far removed from the eight-game losing streak that not only left them five games under .500 but also completely ruined Andruw Jones' vacation, the Dodgers shuffled back to the NL West and have won six in a row. Pitching like he smells October and free agency, Lowe took the ball twice in six days against the Diamondbacks, threw 14 scoreless innings and won twice.
So, advancing on October from what is beginning to feel like the loser's bracket, the Dodgers have won 71 games. The Diamondbacks have won 71 games. They'll need 83, maybe 84, 85 tops to win it.
It might not look like much, it might not actually be much. But it's a race, and the Diamondbacks will throw Webb on Saturday and Randy Johnson on Sunday, which was of some comfort, even if the only sound in the clubhouse late Friday night was of the door squeaking open and closed, of damp towels hitting the bottom of the hamper.
It's a race, even as Ethier glowed, his 20th home run and five RBIs later, the Dodgers a game better than .500.
It's a race one of them has to win.
You know, unless the Colorado Rockies win it.