SAN FRANCISCO -- Before the game Wednesday, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly joked that he was "almost like a worrying mom," concerned about slumps, injuries and preparation plans as his team plays out the string and waits for the playoffs to start.
Ricky Nolasco has suddenly become a problem child.
Nolasco had his third consecutive poor start to finish the regular season, allowing six runs in 52/3 innings as the Dodgers lost to the San Francisco Giants, 6-4.
With a 10-start stretch during which he was unbeaten and pitched to a 1.89 ERA, Nolasco was threatening to overtake rookie left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu as the Dodgers' No. 3 starter in the postseason.
Those days are gone and Nolasco has given the Dodgers little reason to trust him heading into the playoffs after watching him give up 19 runs on 24 hits, four walks and three hit batters in just 12 innings over his last three starts.
The Giants have done most of that damage. They chased Nolasco in the second inning of his Sept. 14 start at Dodger Stadium, the start of Nolasco's slide.
They spread out the pain Wednesday. They scored three times in the second, added two on Pablo Sandoval's home run in the fourth, then chased Nolasco with a bloop double by Tony Abreu to drive in another run in the sixth.
All of the offense against Nolasco was a parting gift for Giants starter Barry Zito.
Signed to a shocking seven-year, $126 million contract as a free agent in December 2006 -- the largest contract ever given to a pitcher at that time -- Zito has largely been a disappointment as a Giant and is not likely to return in 2014.
If Wednesday was his farewell performance, it was more in line with what the Giants probably hoped they would be getting when they signed him. He retired the first nine Dodgers in order and allowed just two runs (one earned) on four hits in five innings.
With Matt Kemp going 3 for 4 (his second consecutive multi-hit game) and driving in two runs, the Dodgers chipped away at the Giants' lead. Adrian Gonzalez's two-out, pinch-hit double in the ninth inning brought Hanley Ramirez to the plate as the tying run but Ramirez grounded out to end the game.
The loss dropped the Dodgers 21/2 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals for the best record in the National League, two games behind the Atlanta Braves for home-field in a potential first-round matchup.
ETHIER VISITS DOCTOR
Dodgers manager Don Mattingly has been asked about it hypothetically countless times over the past three months. But he's only had to deal with it in reality twice.
That's how often the Dodgers have actually had Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier available for the same game -- July 5 and July 21 -- and both times Kemp was injured by the end of the game.
"It keeps getting worked out for me," Mattingly said with a sad smile before Wednesday's game. "Hopefully, I have that problem. I'd like to have that problem."
It's possible he might not have it for the playoffs either.
The Dodgers sent Ethier back to Los Angeles for further examination of his injured left ankle Wednesday. Accompanied by Dodgers director of medical services Stan Conte, Ethier met with Dr. Neal El Attrache then flew back to San Francisco and rejoined the team during their game against the Giants.
Ethier underwent an MRI and a CT scan on his ankle, which showed the damaged soft tissue on the outside of his leg has improved over the past 11 days but is still not healed, resulting in the pain Ethier continues to feel when he pivots on the ankle while running.
Wednesday's quick trip south was prompted by the poor results when Ethier ran the bases during an early workout Tuesday afternoon. While Ethier has been able to hit in the batting cages, do straight-line running and even shag fly balls for a while Tuesday, he is still experiencing discomfort in the outside of his ankle when he runs the bases and has to change direction.
Wednesday's exam resulted in a nebulous announcement that Ethier would continue the workouts and won't play until he can run the bases without pain. Given that 11 days off have only gotten him this far, Mattingly admitted that there is a level of concern about Ethier's availability for the first round of the playoffs.
"We'll cross that bridge when we get there," he said. "We'll see when we get there, about the roster part of it. The main thing now is just to find out if he's going to be able to go or not. We may get enough information that that's not even a question -- or one way or the other."
With 14 wins in 19 games after Wednesday, the St. Louis Cardinals moved two games ahead of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the NL Central with three games to play -- and a half-game up on the Atlanta Braves for the best record in the National League. The Braves were shut out by the Milwaukee Brewers for their 12th loss in the past 20 games.
As it stands now, the Dodgers would open the playoffs next week against the Braves with the Braves holding home-field advantage. Of the three most likely playoff opponents the Dodgers have been tracking down the stretch, the Braves are the only one to win the season series. They beat the Dodgers 5 of 7, including a three-game sweep in Atlanta in May.
But Mattingly said he has not been fretting over who the Dodgers will face in the first round.
"We've played all these guys," he said. "I think the Braves have done a little better against us. We held our own against St. Louis. Cincinnati, it was pretty close. Pittsburgh, it was pretty close.
"I look at it more about us -- we need to go out and play well. If we play up to our capability and our guys do what they're supposed to do then we think we're capable of beating anybody. So that's not that much of a concern."
The Cardinals have been the hottest team among the NL's six playoff teams. But Mattingly expects all of that to be wiped away when the playoffs start.
"For me, it really comes down to how we play," he said. "I really believe the best team is going to win your division or get into the playoffs over the course of 162. When you get into the playoffs, it's going to be who's playing good right then.
"A short series, to me, it's kind of a crapshoot because everyone's confident. Every team just won. Every team just celebrated. Every team is going to feel like they've got a chance. It's going to be a matter of who goes out and plays better."
Left-hander Chris Capuano went through some fielding drills, the final test of his injured groin muscle. The workout went well and Capuano is likely to pitch out of the bullpen at least once during the season-ending series against the Colorado Rockies.
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