ST. LOUIS — They came as close to the World Series as any collection of Dodgers players in the last 25 years.
That won't make it any easier to scrape themselves off its threshold.
Two wins from the Fall Classic, the Dodgers suffered a classic fall Friday amid a downpour of rain and red in a 9-0 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium, abruptly halting their National League Championship Series at four games to two.
A season that began with high expectations draping the most expensive team in baseball history ended with the Dodgers sitting apart in the cheap seats of the losing dugout, staring out to the middle of the field, where the Cardinals had locked arms and were jumping together as one.
Four years after their last NLCS visit, at least the Dodgers won one more game this time. Twenty-five years after their last World Series appearance, the Dodgers at least moved close enough to announce World Series ticket sales.
But by Friday's wet and woeful end, it seemed like they were still so, so far.
"I always hate when a season ends," General Manager Ned Colletti said in a cluttered, quiet clubhouse hallway afterward. "But this one, I really hate that it ended the way it ended."
The Dodgers' best pitcher, Clayton Kershaw, melted down on the mound. The Dodgers' most exciting young player, Yasiel Puig, collapsed in right field. The Dodgers' hitters, facing rookie pitcher Michael Wacha, had their swagger punched in the gut for the second time in a week.
In the biggest start of Kershaw's life, he had his worst performance of the year, giving up seven runs in only four innings, leading to the unsettling sight of Manager Don Mattingly pulling him from the mound in the middle of a game.
Under his biggest spotlight in right field, Puig had his worst fielding game by committing a throwing error, a fielding error, and missing a cutoff man that added fuel to a third-inning fire that eventually smoked Kershaw from the game.
And, oh yeah, the Dodgers' hitters managed only two hits and one walk against Wacha, advancing only one runner as far as second base against a guy who held them scorelesss for 62/3 innings a week ago. So much for making adjustments.
"This one is going to hurt for a long, long time," catcher A.J. Ellis said. "The best word for this is shell-shocked."
The Dodgers flew here Thursday having fought back from a two-games-to-none deficit to close the series to three games to two. They figured their ace was a likely winner Friday, then they believed anything could happen in Game 7 on Saturday.
"It felt so great on that plane, knowing what we had lined up," Ellis said. "And then "
And then Kershaw lost an 11-pitch duel with the Cardinals' Matt Carpenter with one out in the third. Usually Kershaw wins these things. Usually, when a hitter fouls off eight pitches in one at-bat against Kershaw, the hitter is usually buckled by a strikeout.
But this is a Kershaw who was in the process of throwing a career-high 259 innings. This is a Kershaw whose routine had already been disrupted earlier this postseason when he was used on three days' rest.
Kershaw lost this battle with Carpenter, who doubled down the right-field line. Thus began an amazing, agonizing 48-pitch inning for Kershaw, who gave up the double, four singles and a walk while giving up four runs that seemed like 40 runs.
He was kept in the game after that inning amid more second-guessing of Manager Don Mattingly. but considering Kershaw is baseball's best pitcher and this was the Dodgers' biggest game, his 81 pitches weren't enough to make a change.
Two innings later, he was gone. A couple of hours later, he was still numb.
"I didn't have it tonight, this one's on me," he said. "Just to know the guys have worked so hard to get here I wanted to be part of the solution. I just didn't pitch good, man I don't have an answer."
When asked if he could at least take solace in the Dodgers coming within two games of the World Series for the first time in 25 years, Kershaw shook his head.
"What does it really matter?" he said. "Making the playoffs or coming in last place, if you don't win the World Series, it doesn't really matter. If you don't win, what's the point?"
He wasn't helped by Puig, who missed a cutoff man and threw wildly to home plate during the third-inning uprising, then helped start the Cardinals' five-run fifth inning by amazingly trying to make a running grab of an apparent single by Yadier Molina to throw him out at first base. Puig missed, Molina ended up at second, and if the Dodgers don't do anything else next spring, they need to teach Puig how to field smarter.
"That's kind of what we're playing with, with Yasiel," A.J. Ellis said. "He's got that great arm, the ability to throw everybody out, that aggressiveness and passion, and 95% of the time that plays through. But this was one of those times when restraint was needed."
There will be no restraint on expectations next spring for a team that returns most of its key players, including a healthy Hanley Ramirez, whose broken rib might have been the difference in this series. The future here is brighter than it has been in many seasons.
But it still has been many seasons since the Dodgers played in a World Series, 25 years, one wretched night, and counting.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun