San Francisco Giants 6, Dodgers 4

Ricky Nolasco

Ricky Nolasco has allowed 17 earned runs in his last 12 innings, spanning three starts. (Associated Press photo)

If you looked beyond the final score, beyond Ricky Nolasco‘s struggles, you might have noticed the difference between the playoff team and the non-playoff team Wednesday night at AT&T Park.

San Francisco starter Barry Zito was removed from the game, likely his last as a Giant, after pitching five solid innings with the Dodgers trailing 5-2. Zito did not allow a hit until the fourth inning and he did not react well to being removed in the fifth.

A KCAL camera followed the left-hander as he stomped from one end of the dugout to another. Zito appeared to swipe at a water cooler and hastily discard a paper cup, nothing too crazy and nothing that was too difficult to comprehend. After signing a 7-year contract worth $126 million back in 2007, Zito mostly underperformed (ERA-plus of 86) while his teammates won the World Series twice. Wednesday night might have been his last chance to do something right in a Giants uniform; after 77 pitches, he was done.

Nolasco was Zito’s opposite. He labored through a 24-pitch second inning in which the Giants scored three runs, all on a bases-loaded triple by former Dodger Tony Abreu that might have been a grand slam elsewhere.

A two-run home run by Pablo Sandoval in the fourth inning, and an RBI double by Abreu in the sixth, stuck Nolasco with six runs (all earned) in 5 ⅔ innings. He was allowed to throw 95 pitches and pitch into the sixth inning, and it didn’t raise an eyebrow.

For Zito, there was nothing to be gained by his excellence beyond the moment, while giving Nolasco a chance to pitch out of his struggles meant something to the Dodgers, even if they ultimately lost.

Nolasco is expected to pitch at some point in the playoffs. But in his last three starts, Nolasco has thrown a total of 12 innings and allowed 17 earned runs. His earned-run average has risen from 3.14 to 3.72. In the process, the right-hander from Rialto has lost the look of a Game 3 starter, a job that almost certainly will be Hyun-Jin Ryu’s now — especially if the Dodgers draw a first-round matchup against the St. Louis Cardinals, who own a collective .666 OPS against lefties.

But if the season ended today, the Dodgers would be headed to Atlanta. The Braves are a half-game behind the Cardinals for the National League’s best record, at 93-65. The Dodgers are 91-67 with four games to play. Their chances of securing the best record in the league, and the home-field advantage through two rounds that comes with it, are slim.

To overtake the Cardinals, the Dodgers must gain at least 2 ½ games — either go 4-0 and hope the Cardinals go no better than 2-3, go 3-1 and hope the Cardinals go no better than 1-4, or go to 2-2 and hope the Cardinals lose all of their last five games.

Since Atlanta won the head-to-head season series, the Dodgers need to gain at least three games to overtake the Braves. They must go 3-1 or 4-0, and hope the Braves go 0-4 or 1-3. Those odds are not good.

Back to Nolasco. His slider has been his best pitch all season. He’s thrown it more than any other pitch, 27.6 percent of the time per Fangraphs, and batters are hitting .189 off it. When his secondary pitches are working well — as they were during most of Nolasco’s first 12 starts with the Dodgers — he is effective.

Abreu’s three-run triple came off an inside changeup that caught too much of the strike zone. Sandoval’s home run came off a curveball. Nolasco allowed two more singles off changeups and hit Hunter Pence with the same pitch, suggesting his breaking ball command simply wasn’t there tonight.

Nolasco wasn’t the only Dodger whose standing on the playoff roster suffered tonight. Michael Young, A.J. Ellis, Jerry Hairston Jr., Skip Schumaker and Nick Punto — the Dodgers’ four through eight hitters — went 1 for 17. Dee Gordon popped out about 15 feet from home plate in a pinch-hitting appearance in the ninth inning.

The one through four hitters, all bona fide starters — Yasiel Puig, Carl Crawford, Matt Kemp and Adrian Gonzalez (who also pinch-hit in the ninth) — went a combined 7 for 13 with two doubles. Those four players created all the Dodgers’ runs. Hanley Ramirez went 0 for 1 as a pinch-hitter in the ninth inning, but it took a diving stop by Nick Noonan at third base to throw Ramirez out and end the game.

Ramirez’s back, more importantly, held up just fine.

Hairston’s slim chance at a postseason roster spot took another hit with his 0 for 3 performance. He’s in the middle of an 0-for-19 slump, and a 3-for-45 slump that dates to Aug. 20. While the latest news on Andre Ethier‘s ankle might create the need for an additional outfielder in the first round, the Dodgers might decide that Hairston’s experience is best left in the dugout.

Nolasco is the greater concern. If the Dodgers find themselves in an elimination scenario three or four games into the playoffs, their fate will rest on Nolasco’s right arm. Suddenly, that’s a shaky proposition. Games 3 and 4 are at home, where the right-hander has been decent in his career (4-3, 3.88 ERA in eight starts). But it’s now worth asking if Edinson Volquez is a candidate for the playoff rotation spot behind Ryu, Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw.

Volquez pitches tomorrow in San Francisco. The game just got a little more interesting.

Tonight’s box score is here.

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