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Dodgers face offseason decisions after second straight abrupt playoff exit

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LOS ANGELES — The Dodgers were built to win a World Series, not just get into the playoffs. They struck out again.

They rallied from 9 ½ games back in the NL West to win the division for the second straight year and earned home-field advantage in the postseason.

But the result was similar to last year — another defeat by the Cardinals. The Dodgers lost the National League Division Series 3-1 in St. Louis on Tuesday, with probable NL Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw giving up another game-winning home run in the seventh inning. Last year, the Cardinals bounced them out in the NLCS, with Kershaw pitching a rare clunker in the elimination game.

It wasn't the ending sought by the team with baseball's highest payroll at the end of the regular season — $256 million. The Dodgers' World Series appearance drought now extends to 27 years.

"This one is leaving more of a sick feeling in your stomach just because you hoped you could figure out a way to turn the corner and get past these guys," said outfielder Andre Ethier, who made a rare start in place of Yasiel Puig in Game 4. "It definitely doesn't leave a good feeling with you, especially compared to last year."

Now, the Dodgers face some decisions in the offseason, including a makeover of the bullpen and discussing a new contract for oft-injured shortstop Hanley Ramirez.

"We'll look at everything and kind of where we need to improve, how do we get better," manager Don Mattingly said. "You lose, you don't worry about one situation or another, you just worry about the win or the loss."

The bullpen, which included three former All-Star closers, consistently struggled to transition from starters Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu to hard-throwing closer Kenley Jansen.

PHOTO: Los Angeles Dodgers' Hanley Ramirez, left, and Yasiel Puig watch the St. Louis Cardinals celebrate their 3-2 win over the Dodgers after Game 4 of baseball's NL Division Series Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2014, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Los Angeles Dodgers' Hanley Ramirez, left, and Yasiel Puig watch the St. Louis Cardinals celebrate their 3-2 win over the Dodgers after Game 4 of baseball's NL Division Series Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2014, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Mattingly had few reliable choices between Brian Wilson, Brandon League, Chris Perez, Pedro Baez, J.P. Howell, Scott Elbert, Carlos Frias and Jamey Wright in getting the ball to Jansen.

Howell, Baez and Elbert — the first relievers out of the bullpen against the Cardinals — all gave up home runs. Tuesday's loss was the sixth straight game in which the bullpen allowed a homer, including the final three of the regular season.

"We've got some things to work on that we have to redo during the offseason," Howell said. "Next year our goal is the same thing, going to the World Series."

Kershaw had the major leagues' lowest ERA of 1.77 for a record fourth consecutive season.

His salary is set to go from $4 million this year to $30 million next year as part of the $215 million, seven-year deal he signed last winter that made him baseball's richest pitcher. He will earn a $1 million bonus if he wins the NL Cy Young, as expected. He's a strong candidate for NL MVP, too.

But the postseason continues to be a struggle for Kershaw. The 26-year-old left-hander is 1-5 with a 5.12 ERA in 11 career playoff appearances, with the Cardinals beating him four times.

St. Louis left-handed hitters had five homers off Dodgers southpaws in the four games.

"The season ended and I was a big part of the reason why," he said. "It doesn't feel good regardless of how you pitched."

The Dodgers won the NL West by six games over San Francisco. Now they head into a long winter knowing the rival Giants are headed to the NLCS while they are left to deal with another crushing loss.

"You just know you're close, but at the same time you're still not there," catcher A.J. Ellis said. "It's devastating."

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