Eight straight losses and the September strut is gone. The offense suffers because of deadwood in dead hands.

With a pennant in the picture, such frailties are not supposed to afflict these Los Angeles Dodgers. Nine days ago, the defending world champions had a three-game lead and a magic number in the National League West.

But after tonight's loss to Atlanta at Dodger Stadium, they had only second place.

Atlanta held a one-game lead over the Dodgers with each team having five games left to play, as the Braves descended from San Francisco for a two-game series at Dodger Stadium beginning tonight.

"They looked dead," Cincinnati Manager Russ Nixon said after his team of 98 losses finished a two-game sweep of the Dodgers Tuesday night. "You look across the field into their dugout and you don't see any spirit. That's unusual for a club that is supposed to be fighting for something."

It is merely their 1982 lives that these Dodgers now fight for. They scored only 13 runs in the seven losses, hitting just .219. The consecutive defeats are the longest limp in Manager Tommy Lasorda's six-year reign.

Dodgers reliever Terry Forster puts the situation in pennant perspective, saying, "We have to win the last five games."

"These streaks happen once or twice a year," said Dodgers first baseman Steve Garvey. "This one is magnified now only because we are in a pennant race."

The seventh defeat may have been the most painful of the somber streak, not merely because it allowed Atlanta to take over first place. It was the most painful because the Dodgers allowed it to happen at all.

Los Angeles right fielder Rick Monday said, "Stranger things have happened. But I wouldn't be surprised to see this one in Ripley's Believe It or Not."

The Tuesday trauma came in three parts:

First, the Dodgers let a 3-0 lead and a masterful effort by starter Bob Welch slip away in the eighth when the Reds tied the score.

Next, they were beaten by a run-scoring single to center with one out in the 10th inning by pinch hitter Rafael Landestoy. The pain of the hit off Dave Stewart (9-8) that scored Ron Oester from second festered because Landestoy is a former Dodger and because he was hitting only .198.

Finally and most painfully, the Dodgers failed to score in the bottom of the 10th despite having the bases loaded and none out. Reds reliever Joe Price induced Steve Sax to fly to shallow center, Ron Roenicke to pop to second and Dusty Baker to fly to right.

The end.

Second place.

"The key now," said Garvey, "is coming back."

Last year, the Dodgers put a patent on the comeback with rallies against Houston in the miniseries, Montreal in the league championship series and the Yankees in the World Series.

But there is an eerie feeling about this latest slump, which includes a 60-inning streak in which the Dodgers have not produced more than one run in an inning.

In Tuesday night's loss, Lasorda benched three starters. Out went Ron Cey, Ken Landreaux and Mike Scioscia. In went Ron Roenicke, Rick Monday and Steve Yeager.

"I have no idea why we're not hitting, but we've got to score some runs," Lasorda said loss after loss.

As the noose swings, the Dodgers have tried to remain loose. After Monday's sixth straight loss melted into a first-place tie with Atlanta, the Dodgers had an impromptu rap session and beer party in Lasorda's office. "They gave me some scotch and I threw up," said Forster.

But after Tuesday night's defeat there was no party. The Dodgers were resigned to the facts, but not resigned from the race.

"We've just got to keep doing what we've always done," said reliever Steve Howe.

"An experienced team should come out of this," said Garvey.

"There are holes in the dike," said Monday. "Now, we have to find the thumbs to plug them up."