Dodgers' crapshoot rotation must avoid Ryan Howard at all costs
L.A.'s rotation has been a series of tricky calls throughout the postseason for Torre
Howard has at least one RBI in all seven of his games this postseason
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PHILADELPHIA -- The Dodgers' decision to start Hiroki Kuroda was an understandable gamble that just didn't work, and manager Joe Torre wouldn't second-guess that call after Kuroda blew up early in their 11-0 defeat to the Phillies in Game 3. Kuroda may not get a second shot to start in this series, but that's OK. The Dodgers have several starters of similar ability, so Torre has a chance to tap a different one if they get to Game 7.
The bigger issue if the Dodgers are going to have a chance to come back to beat the defending world champion Phillies is not what to do about Kuroda (that should be easy, as this should be it) but rather what to do about Phillies slugger Ryan Howard. If they don't figure that one out, the Dodgers won't get to Game 7.
One of the keys to the Dodgers' upset sweep over the Cardinals was how brilliantly they pitched the great Albert Pujols in the Division Series. Their plan for Howard hasn't been nearly as successful so far.
The Dodgers had a smart strategy of avoidance with Pujols. But with Howard, that doesn't appear to be the case. While the Dodgers have walked Howard three times, they also have thrown him too may fat pitches. The result is six RBIs in this series, including two on a triple in the first inning in Game 3 that was all the Phillies would need.
"I wouldn't give him anything to hit," one Dodger said before the game. "Going into the series, I wouldn't have said that. But here (at Citizens Bank Ballpark), especially, all he has to do it hit a fly ball and it will go out."
That they should stay away from Howard should be obvious by now. Howard, who is batting .385 in the playoffs and slugging .731, also has at least one RBI in all seven of his games this postseason. And this has been going on awhile. After the All-Star break, he hit .305 and slugged .621. He also hit 23 home runs and drove home 74 runs.
The Dodgers started the series apparently believing Howard could be beaten by busting him inside. They may have to rethink that now, though. With Phillies at first and third and one out on Sunday night, Kuroda appeared to be trying to apply the game plan to Howard by continually going inside on him. Eventually, Kuroda got too much of the plate, and Howard sent a rocket into the right-field corner for a triple.
"We didn't come into the series saying we're going to walk Howard every chance we get," Torre said after the game. "We're certainly not going to pitch to him with a base open. There was no base open in the first inning ... He's got a pretty good supporting cast around him, too. There's no easy out in that lineup."
Torre has a point in that there are no easy choices here. Ex-Dodger Jayson Werth followed Howard's hit with a two-run home run that completely dashed the Dodgers' hopes.
In the end, Kuroda allowed six hits and six runs in 1 1/3 innings. Torre and company made the surprise decision to summon Kuroda for Game 3 after Torre accompanied pitching coach Rick Honeycutt to Arizona to see what he had. Kuroda had been bothered by a neck strain and hadn't pitched since Sept. 29. But when they saw him throw strikes, they took an understandable risk there.
"I don't second-guess the decision because we made it on what we saw," Torre said. "His bullpen was good for this start, and the bullpen today coming into the game was good. He came into the game and ... the ball just didn't behave."
The rotation has actually been a series of tricky calls throughout the postseason for Torre, since the Dodgers have a group of starters that all bring a variety of pluses and minuses. Most of his calls have worked so far, especially the one to utilize scrap-heap pickup Vicente Padilla, who was acquired for $80,000.
But the reality is, the Dodgers' rotation is a crapshoot. They have a collection of livable but less-than-dominant starters. Some see it as a group of No. 3-type starters. They could still win with their rotation, since they have an excellent bullpen and many other strengths. But undeniably, there is no Cliff Lee on this staff.
"We don't have a No. 1 or 2 (starter), that's no secret," one Dodgers official said. "[Clayton] Kershaw will be a 1. But right now we don't have a 1."
Their pitchers are all so close that Chad Billingsley, their de facto No. 1 pitcher during the regular season, hasn't been given a starting assignment yet in the NLCS. And ex-Phillie Randy Wolf, who started Game 1 of the Division Series, will make his first start of the NLCS Monday night in Game 4.
Billingsley got into Game 3 in relief, and while he didn't shut down the Phillies (two hits, two walks and two runs in 3 1/3 innings), he was a little bit better than Kuroda. Sources said weeks ago that some Dodgers people were losing some faith in Billingsley, and that's become obvious, as he's gone from regular-season No. 1 starter to mop-up man.
Torre will have a tough call if they get to Game 7 as to who should start.
The easier call now should be to avoid Howard at all costs.
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