SAN DIEGO, Calif. – Brian Wilson went to pick up the baseball palm-down, like a highwayman collecting a cone from the back of a slow-moving flatbed, and it's funny where an inning, a ballgame, a 3-0 start, can go sideways on a guy and his teammates.
Two-and-a-half hours in, a quarter-of-a-billion dollars in, everything was looking just fine Sunday night at Petco Park for the Los Angeles Dodgers, who were without Clayton Kershaw and had drawn the very capable Andrew Cashner for their domestic opener and were going to win anyway.
Then, well, no they weren't. The San Diego Padres were going to win. It was a 2-and-0 pitch to Seth Smith, who apparently prefers his pinch-hit, game-tying appointments a little down, a little middle, directly in the path of his bat barrel. It was a walk and a sacrifice bunt and an uncovered base and another hittable pitch and an in-between hop and, well, the Dodgers were going to unravel over five eighth-inning batters, and they weren't going to win, and by the end of all that they were hardly a threat anymore.
The Dodgers have put together the most expensive team ever, and with that comes a duty to win, and win a lot, well into October, whether anyone in their hometown can watch them on TV or not. They won't have to win every night, of course, and by the time they'd lost for the first time in three games there were still 28 hours left in March, so a 3-1 give-away to the Padres wouldn't register much beyond the fact they held a lead in the eighth inning and probably should have won.
Then Wilson threw the cutter that Smith hit 360 feet and into the right-field bleachers, a cut fastball that was supposed to stay away from the left-handed hitter and did not, and you'd get to thinking about how fragile expectations can be sometimes, even from the vantage point of six months from finding out. Standing in for Kershaw, Hyun-Jin Ryu was exceptional over seven innings. He'd buried his curveball grip a bit deeper in his palm, and threw that with great cleverness. He allowed a single baserunner after the second inning, handing a 1-0 lead and six remaining outs to the strength of the Dodgers' bullpen.
"I'm a lot more comfortable," Ryu said later. "I understand the team and the system better. I can definitely say I'm more comfortable this year than I was last year."
He'll see tougher lineups than the Padres, yet there was a conviction to Ryu's pitches – the new curveball gives him four effective choices, along with his slider, signature changeup and low-90s fastball – that convinced catcher A.J. Ellis this start was perhaps Ryu's best in a Dodger uniform.
Except at 88 pitches he did not return for the eighth. One couldn't argue that in March. Besides, Ryu said, he felt some fatigue in the seventh inning, and so informed manager Don Mattingly.
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"I went up to Donnie and told him it was probably better if I came out of the game," he said.
There are no heroes in March. So along came Wilson, and in came Smith, and after ball one, ball two, here came the cutter, and the inch or two where a game is won and lost. Like everyone, the Dodgers will see a lot of these moments, hundreds of them, thousands even, and they'll meet their expectations by winning most of them. Or not.
"It's more difficult to deal with because Ryu pitched such a marvelous game," Wilson said. "It's a hard one to swallow.
"Throwing a pitch that was a little uncharacteristic of me. Then, from there, the tire deflated."
The score was 1-1. Wilson then walked Yasmani Grandal on a 3-and-2 pitch. Everth Cabrera sacrifice bunted near the first-base line, and Adrian Gonzalez came in and Wilson went to the ball, and Wilson cast a quick glance at Gonzalez, and Wilson reached for the ball with his glove. Plucked at it with his glove, actually, like one of those toy cranes in the arcade that picks up cheap stuffed animals. The ball did not stay in his glove. Cabrera was safe at first base. And that's where the imprecise pitch to Smith – "He's a tremendous middle, middle-in fastball hitter," Ellis said – had advanced to the point where the Dodgers had lost the moment, at the very least. Grandal, who'd not stolen a base as a professional, stole third because the Dodgers were defensively lax, and a pitch later Cabrera took second on defensive indifference, because the Dodgers had to play their infield in, and Chris Denorfia drove both runners home with a single through that infield.
It happens. It happens plenty to even the best teams. But, on the weekend when the pundits publish their expectations for the season, and many – if not most – have the Dodgers playing to the end of October, and when the odds-makers favor the Dodgers in the same way, it's a reminder that you have to play the games to win them, and win the games simply to reach the standard.
Maybe that takes a little getting used to. Maybe it's 10 weird minutes over seven months. And in the end fans are chanting "Beat L.A.," and Huston Street is arriving to Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir," and the ninth inning is over, and nothing's gone quite as you expected it to.