With the screaming joy of Saturday’s epic game still echoing in Chavez Ravine, reality began to descend like a marine layer over the city. Southern California’s baseball hopes came down appropriately to two innings by all-star pitcher Eric Gagne. Could he hold the Cardinals off long enough while the Dodgers, the comeback kids of 2004, somehow conjured up one more improbable victory? After the nigh-on spiritual lovefest of Jose Lima’s shutout on Saturday, giving the boys in blue their first won playoff game since 1988 and one more chance on the edge of elimination, would it all end tonight?

Gagne, quite possibly the finest closing pitcher in recent memory, smothered the Cardinals in the 8th inning. Now it was the offense’s turn.

The largest crowd ever to see a game at Dodger Stadium groaned as frequent pinch hitter and hero Robin Ventura grounded out on the first pitch. Cesar Izturis took the count to 3-2 before racing to first for a single. Thundersticks pounded hopefully as Jason Werth, who hit a homer his first at bat, came to the plate, only to strikeout quickly. Two outs. The Cardinals substituted pitchers to bring a lefty against lefty Steve Finley. But all too soon, Finley popped up to end the inning.

Top of the ninth, and two outs via a double play, then a third with a fly out. Due up, the heart of the Dodger order in more ways than one: Adrian Beltre, Shawn Green, Milton Bradley. Three batters and half an inning stood between the team and the end of the season….

The Dodgers had 53 come-from-behind victories during the regular season, a record for them, second in the majors behind the Yankees. One of the greatest was the next-to-last game of the season versus the hated Giants with Finley’s grand slam. And that was what the Dodgers needed now: four runs to tie the game.

MVP candidate Beltre flied out to center field. One out.

Green, swinging for the fences, struck out in three pitches. Two outs.

Milton Bradley, the tempestuous outfielder who brought fire, passion, and controversy to the Dodger locker room, took the count to 3 and 2.

You found yourself wishing Vin Sculley could be calling these last moments rather than the Fox Sports crew.

Four balls: Bradley took a walk to first base. Next up, Alex Cora. Two quick strikes, Bradley taking second without the Cardinals trying to stop him. Then Cora swung at a pitch near his feet and the end had finally come.

Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.” came over the PA as manager Jim Tracy brought his team out of the dugout to congratulate the Cardinals on their victory. “A classy move,” the announcers pronounced. The crowd cheered the comeback kids who finally ran out of mojo.

For a team who wasn’t expected to be much of a threat this year to the rest of their division, much less the league, the Dodgers exceeded and succeeded. And even though the magical run ended at last, a playoff-loss streak was also ended and, thanks to Lima, Bradley, and the rest of the boys, a passionless team found their heart this year.

The familiar “Wait till next year…” will be on many fans’ lips tonight and tomorrow and all the way till spring next year. In this town of tinsel and make-believe, those dreams might even come true.