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09/13/09 8:30 PM ET

Dodgers know when to step up

Los Angeles playing best ball vs. top competition

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Los Angeles Dodgers have spent some time this season looking like they were playing to the level of their opposition. That tendency can cause headaches over the long haul, but it can be a handy trait when playing in October.

The trend continued this weekend at AT&T Park, with the Dodgers taking two out of three from the Giants. Sunday's game, a 7-2 loss, was no gem for Los Angeles, particularly considering a fifth straight start without a victory for Chad Billingsley.

But the Dodgers had already done the necessary work of winning the series. The series could have fairly been called pivotal, and it was, as the Giants' fading postseason chances were further damaged.

The weekend was a net gain for the Dodgers against both the Rockies and the Giants. Their lead in the National League West is now three games over Colorado and 7 1/2 over San Francisco.

"Two out of three is certainly acceptable," manager Joe Torre said. "But when you win the first two, you get a little greedy."

The Dodgers have generally played better when the games felt more important. The Dodgers are now 9-6 against the Giants. The Dodgers are 12-3 against the Rockies. True, the Dodgers were 8-1 against Colorado before the Rockies changed managers and were transformed. Still, the Dodgers have played the Rockies in two series since this rebirth and the Dodgers won both.

Outside the NL West, it is no different. The Dodgers, for instance, are 5-3 against the defending World Series champion Phillies and 4-3 against the Cubs, who at least were supposed to be good.

On the flip side, the Dodgers are 3-4 against Houston, and 3-3 against Milwaukee, two sub-.500 NL Central teams. The Dodgers apparently are better off playing tougher competition.

"It's been that way, and that's why it's a mystery to me," Torre said Sunday."I'm trying to think of what I say and don't say in some of these meetings. In these meetings here I don't say anything. If I have to tell them we're playing the Giants this weekend, we've got the wrong group of guys."

The Dodgers are 29-27 since the All-Star break, and nobody is going to become particularly excited about that showing. This was a club that was 20 games above .500 shortly after Memorial Day, playing with overwhelming skill and confidence. The second half of the season hasn't been like that.

"I still wonder where we went," Torre said.

But there are two factors that offer considerable solace. One is that the Dodgers have shown this persistent ability to play well in big series. The other is that there is a race in the NL West, not because the Dodgers have evaporated, but because the Colorado Rockies have played for the last 4 1/2 months the way the Dodgers played for the first two. The Rockies' problem is that while they were going 18-28 to open the season, the Dodgers were building what was then the best record in baseball. The Dodgers haven't played consistently in that fashion for some time, but they also haven't collapsed.

"On balance, we really haven't given anything away," Torre said. "We haven't played as well as we played earlier, but we haven't played 10 games under .500, either. They did more climbing than we did dropping.

"As long as we get to postseason play, at least I'll know that we'll show up for those games. We still have a little work to do to get to postseason play. I keep being told how easy our schedule is, but we still have to play the games."

The Dodgers still have three-game series left with the Giants and the Rockies. But they also have seven games left with the Pirates, who have managed to divest themselves of almost every established player they could find. The Dodgers have three games left against the Nationals and two against the Padres. The majority of the Dodgers' remaining schedule -- 10 of 18 games -- will be against last-place teams. Maybe it isn't such a good thing that the Dodgers' remaining schedule includes some of the National League's most convenient targets.

But there is a theory suggesting that a team is much better off hitting some bumps in the road as opposed to coasting to a division title.

"It's all about how we play," Torre said. "But there is something to be said for the fact that there were two clubs last year, the Angels and the Cubs, that really weren't challenged the whole year, and they both got knocked out in the first round."

The most encouraging thing about this prolonged stretch in which the Dodgers overall have been more OK than impressive, is that when an important occasion has been presented to them, they have been able to rise to the occasion.

"When we're wondering what we are, the answers have been pretty good," Torre said. "Those things showed me, not saying you're going to win, but you're not overwhelmed by it. That's the thing I like best. You can't always control the bottom line but you can control how you go about it."

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.