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Dodgers far from their strongest, but must step up

Frustrating factors -- such as Hanley's injury -- define Game 4 loss to Cardinals @philgrogers

LOS ANGELES -- Nick Punto, the middle man in a three-man shortstop relay, is like the rest of his Los Angeles Dodgers teammates.

He's impressed with the power arms of the St. Louis pitching staff and admittedly was pushing the envelope for a lineup that is beat up and misfiring, one that has developed warning-track power against the Cardinals after pounding the Braves into submission. The next thing he knew, he wanted to dig a hole and crawl into it.

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Punto made no excuses for being picked off second base by rookie Carlos Martinez after a seventh-inning double, saying there was nothing anyone could have done to help him. He might not have been napping but he was definitely caught.

"That was a lonely place to be," Punto said. "It's a lonely jog off the field."

Punto, thinking about stealing third or taking a base on a pitch in the dirt, was a split second late reacting when Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma sneaked behind him to take a throw from Martinez. The Dodgers trailed, 4-2, at the time and lost Game 4 of the National League Championship Series by that score, disappointing 53,992 fans at Dodger Stadium.

It might have been the natural end to a painful day for the Dodgers, who take their cues from shortstop Hanley Ramirez. He was in the lineup for the second straight game -- what else on the 25th anniversary of the Kirk Gibson homer? -- but couldn't compensate for the pain he's feeling from the rib that was broken by a fastball from Joe Kelly, who will be St. Louis' starter in Game 5.

Ramirez winced every time he swung en route to three strikeouts, before he and Don Mattingly agreed it was time to pull the plug. Punto, the 35-year-old veteran who earned a World Series ring with the 2011 Cardinals, replaced him in the seventh inning. He would be lifted in the eighth for Michael Young as part of a double shift.

Never mind that Young has played only six games at shortstop since 2008. As Jimmy Lafave sings, desperate men do desperate things.

Because the stretched-thin Dodgers are failing to provide run support for a pitching staff that has held the Cardinals to eight runs and a .148 batting average, Mattingly trusted the people who were telling him that Ramirez could contribute a second day in a row. Ramirez would say afterward he felt significantly worse than he did for Monday's Game 3, when he had two hits and last eight innings, but that concession came too late to change Mattingly's thinking.

Ramirez said he was in pain from the time he work up Tuesday, and that treatment didn't provide much relief.

"I just feel worse today," he said. "All day long, pain. ... By the fifth inning, I couldn't go anymore."

Ramirez thinks he's going to be able to play Wednesday, even though Game 5 is scheduled for a 1 p.m. PT (TBS).

"Oh, yeah," he said. "Definitely."

Mattingly isn't sure, but he figures he's got to give Ramirez the chance, even though Punto hit .294 the last two months of the season and is 2-for-5 in the NLCS.

"We'll try it again tomorrow," Mattingly said about Ramirez. "We'll see where he goes tomorrow, if he's able to get loose. Basically we are at the same spot."

With Ramirez, yes, but as far as the series goes, the Dodgers took a major step toward the offseason when they had no answer for the home runs by Matt Holliday and pinch-hitter Shane Robinson hit off Ricky Nolasco and J.P. Howell, respectively. The Dodgers trail the NLCS 3-1 entering the Game 5 matchup of Zack Greinke vs. Kelly, with Clayton Kershaw and Game 3 winner Hyun-Jin Ryu set to pitch in St. Louis if Los Angeles can extend the series.

"We definitely need to turn the page," Punto said. "We have our work cut out for us, [but] we have all our pitchers in line. We just have to stay positive."

Few players are more positive than A.J. Ellis, the Dodgers' catcher who is a reservoir of optimism for the pitching staff. But Ellis pointed out one big problem with counting on riding the arms of Greinke and Kershaw into a decided seventh game.

"Those guys lost," Ellis said. "[The Cardinals] beat 'em in St. Louis. It's going to be a tough challenge. We have to score runs. That's the bottom line. Our pitching's been great this entire series. Our offense hasn't come through. We need to step up. Doesn't matter who's in the lineup, doesn't matter who's playing. We got to score runs. We have to put good at-bats on Joe Kelly. He threw great against us in Game 1. We have to scratch and claw and get some runs."

Punto was trying to do exactly that after he delivered a one-out double over center fielder Jon Jay's head in the seventh inning. He took a big lead because he was thinking about stealing third base.

"If [Martinez] gives me a no look I'm going, yeah," said Punto, who was 3-for-6 stealing during the regular season. "They were nowhere to be found. Kozma was so far in the six-hole, [second baseman Matt] Carpenter was nowhere around. I had the intention to go if he gives me a no look."

Kozma triggered the play with a signal to Martinez, who wheeled at just the right instant to get the ball to his shortstop before Punto could get back to the bag.

"It was a great play," Punto said. "Kozma made a great play."

Punto said it was especially painful to give up an out to a Cardinals' bullpen that is doing its part behind the Cardinals' locked-in starting pitchers. In an October that has been all about the three-up, three-down inning and runners left on base, the Dodgers know they're officially working without a net at this point, no matter how well their own pitchers have performed.

"Surprising is a good word -- frustrated, disappointed, irritated," Ellis said. "All those words fit the bill. Our guys have thrown the ball great and they've done an amazing job. You feel like at this point, you should be at the least two-two [in the series]. But we are where we are for a reason, and that's because St. Louis has executed as well as we have, especially on the mound. We haven't been able to come through with hits. They've show not just us, but all of baseball that they have a ton of young power arms. Those guys come in the game and they shut the door. We've got to solve that riddle, score some runs and start tomorrow."

Whether the shortstop is Ramirez, Punto, Young or the ghost of Pee Wee Reese.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for

Los Angeles Dodgers, Nick Punto, Hanley Ramirez, Michael Young