ST. LOUIS — In the shadow of an arch that looks like a noose, the Dodgers were startled awake from their dream season Saturday while gasping for what feels like their last breath.
The memorable remodeling of the last six months has been trashed in less than 24 hours.
The most expensive team in baseball has been rolled on the riverfront, mugged in a Busch, kicked by a Clydesdale and sent staggering back to Los Angeles with pockets empty, eyes wide and winter coming.
"This," Hanley Ramirez said, "is really hard."
On Friday night, the Dodgers began the National League Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals as clear favorites. Their two aces were pitching in the first two games, their bats had just crushed the Atlanta Braves and their manager was finally safe and in control.
By Saturday night, as red-faced fans were howling deep into the cool Midwest morning, everything had changed. The Dodgers aces had been crumpled, their batting order was in tatters and their manager is again drowning.
The final score Saturday was 1-0. The final feeling was 10-0. The Cardinals have just beaten the Dodgers for the second time in less than a day, beaten unbeatable Clayton Kershaw with only two hits, taken a two-games-to-zero lead that looks indignant and feels insurmountable.
"It's tough, man," J.P. Howell said, shaking his head in a somber clubhouse. "It's really tough."
It's tougher than that. Only once in the 28-year history of a seven-game NLCS has a team won the series after trailing two games to zero. That statistic further vexes the Dodgers because the one successful team, the 1985 Cardinals, only survived after Tom Lasorda failed to walk Jack Clark.
But that's OK, because the Dodgers now return home for Game 3 on Monday at their beloved Chavez Ravine, where they will be met by all those movie stars and stomping fans and, oh yeah, Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright and his 4-0 career postseason record and 2.03 earned-run average. So maybe not so OK?
"It's not the end of the world, but it's definitely not a good thing," Kershaw said.
If it's not the end of the world, it's certainly the end of the whirl, the Dodgers' giddy dance since June 22 coming to a squealing halt after two games during which they had one hit in 16 at-bats with runners in scoring position while betraying the sparkling outings of Zack Greinke and Kershaw.
The two former Cy Young Award winners combined to give up two earned runs in 14 innings with 15 strikeouts and two walks, and the Dodgers still trudged from the early-evening shadows into darkness Saturday without a victory here.
"With those two starts, you feel like you should walk out of there with no worse than a split," A.J. Ellis said.
They are not walking out at all, but being dragged by the frayed collar of a weathered jersey that is coming apart at the seams.
•They are hurting.
Ramirez, the heart of the Dodgers lineup, sat out Saturday's game because of bruised ribs suffered when he was hit by Joe Kelly's pitch in the first inning of Friday's opener. Nobody on the Dodgers believes he was hit intentionally — thus no retaliation — but it may have been the Cardinals pitching staff's most important plunk. The Dodgers lineup is lost without a guy who hit .500 in their division series with six runs batted in in four games.
•They are unsettled.
On Saturday, the players seemed to act out some lingering bad feelings over Manager Don Mattingly's removal of Adrian Gonzalez for pinch-runner Dee Gordon in the eighth inning Friday. The move essentially cost the Dodgers their two most consistent hitters — Gonzalez and twice-intentionally walked Ramirez — for the final five innings, and led to the 3-2 loss.
There was not only nationwide criticism of the decision, but it turns out Dodgers players were clearly unhappy as well, which perhaps led to several distracted plate appearances Saturday by a team whose mind seemed elsewhere. Runners reached base in four innings against young heat thrower Michael Wacha and four relievers, yet in three of those innings rallies were snuffed with wild strikeouts, with the final five Dodgers hitters striking out on some swings that weren't even close.
•They are tired.
Yasiel Puig's meteoric rookie season has seemingly crashed to earth, as he struck out four times Saturday and was 0 for 6 with runners on base in the two games without getting the ball out of the infield.
A.J. Ellis' dream season also took a nightmarish turn Saturday when his passed ball, only his seventh of the season, allowed David Freese to take third base after a leadoff double in the sixth inning. Freese scored on John Jay's fly ball to left field, with the throw from Carl Crawford's surgically repaired arm barely making it to the pitcher's mound.
At times here, it seems as if the Dodgers' tumultuous start and incredible comeback has finally drained the team of some of its skills and much of its focus. Throw in the fresh injuries and Mattingly's old troubles, which could possibly still endanger his job if the Dodgers get swept, and the Blue seem blue.
"In 24 hours, you got a full 162-game look at the Dodger season," A.J. Ellis said. "Hopefully, when we go home, we get that 42-8 stretch back."
It won't be easy. Hyun-Jin Ryu will be taking what could be an injured elbow into Game 3 against Cardinals ace Wainwright. Then Greinke will have to worry about his tricky elbow if he makes his third career start on three days' rest in Game 4.
The good times at Dodger Stadium have become desperate times. The Dodgers' blessed autumn is fading fast.
"Now we'll see what we're made of," A.J. Ellis said early Saturday evening as his teammates quietly limped and lugged themselves toward a bus, and then a plane, that they hoped would take them out of the shadow of that noose.
Twitter: @billplaschkeCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun