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7/23/2007 09:03:00 AM

NL West: Dodgers staff in tatters

By Jon Weisman

Injuries and ineffectiveness have pulverized the once-formidable Los Angeles Dodgers pitching staff to such an extent that three pitchers have started and relieved in the same week.

The Dodgers have been a pitching punching bag ever since July 4, when starters Hong-Chih Kuo and Randy Wolf met up with Jason Schmidt on the disabled list. Reliever Chin-hui Tsao compounded the problems by joining bullpenmate Yhency Brazoban on the DL on July 15 -- a day after Tsao gave up a grand slam that propelled the Dodgers into a 12-inning, 193-pitch endurance-fest in San Francisco and undermined any rest built up over the All-Star Break.

Perhaps most discouraging, All-Star closer Takashi Saito hasn't entered a game since Wednesday because of soreness, which Saito fears might be a revival of spinal cord issues that plagued him during his final three seasons in Japan, according to Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times. Saito is scheduled for an MRI today.

As a result, if you've ever been looking for a team that would be nifty enough to use its starters as relievers on the days they're scheduled to throw in between outings, the Dodgers have collapsed into that paradigm.

  • Mark Hendrickson, who got the victory with two innings of relief on the day Tsao broke down, started last Tuesday but was knocked out after three innings. Recent callup Eric Stults relieved him for the next three innings.

  • Derek Lowe started Friday but got knocked out after three innings. Hendrickson threw 33 pitches in relief that game.

  • Sunday, Stults started and was kind enough to last for 5 1/3 innings, but with the bullpen maxed out, Lowe had to come get the Dodgers through the seventh -- in what ultimately became a 10-inning loss.

    If Chad Billingsley, a 22-year-old righthander who has a 3.56 ERA but isn't always economical with his pitch counts, can't give the Dodgers innings tonight in Houston (and that may be the case as he struggles with a blister on his pitchaing hand), it would surprise no one at this point to see Brett Tomko -- who gave the Dodgers six innings of shutout respite Friday -- become the latest to pull double-duty. Essentially, the Dodgers have resorted to using a six-man rotation with every starter on call for relief at least one day in between.

    To get off this treadmill, one or several things has to happen. Saito has to get back in action, or the Dodgers need to add him to the DL and call up a minor leaguer like Eric Hull (3.18 ERA at AAA Las Vegas) or Jonathan Meloan (2.20 ERA at AA Jacksonville before his recent promotion to Vegas). And some starter besides Brad Penny has to pitch into the seventh inning. Since the All-Star break, no one else has.

    For all their problems, the Dodgers are in first place in the NL West, a game ahead of the San Diego Padres and a half-game behind the New York Mets and Milwaukee Brewers for the best record in the NL, thanks to a revitalized offense led by 22-year-old Matt Kemp (1.007 OPS) and 23-year-old James Loney (.942 OPS). It's a complete turnabout from the run-challenged, pitching-strong group that carried the team for the season's first three months.

    Wolf is tentatively set for a rehabilitation start in a Class A minor-league game Wednesday, but it should be a while before he emerges as an innings eater to say the least. Since July 1, 2004, he has lasted seven innings only six times. Of course, a team's first instinct in July is to look to the trade market for help, but it's not as if there are fields of quality arms waiting to be harvested. And, the Dodgers' most tradeable commodities, Kemp and Loney, are now integral to the team. Moving them would only re-open the team's offensive woes.

    With Hendrickson and Tomko as inconsistent this year as they have tended to be for years, the pitcher to watch might be Billingsley -- who, appropriately enough, began the season in the bullpen. Billingsley, who turns 23 Sunday, has only logged 65 2/3 innings in 2007. The talent is clearly there, as evidenced by his adjusted ERA of 122 (100 being average) according to Baseball-Reference.com. But doubt remains whether he become efficient enough with his pitch counts in time to save the Dodger staff this season.

    Pitches by Dodger relievers since the All-Star Break
    July 13 38
    July 14 102
    July 15 62
    July 16 39
    July 17 126
    July 18 45
    July 19 95
    July 20 33
    July 21 37
    July 22 87
    Average per day 66.4

    Geoff Blum hasn't permanently taken second base from Marcus Giles in San Diego, but the 34-year-old journeyman infielder (.699 career OPS) has started four of the past five games at the position -- going 7 for 12 with three walks in the process -- ahead of Giles, who has a .200 on-base percentage in 82 plate appearances since June 25.

    Padres manager Bud Black told Scott Bair of the North County Times that "a number of things" were going wrong for Giles.

    "I think he's still expanding the strike zone a little bit," Black said. "I think that he tends to be a little bit out in front of off-speed pitches. Then when he tries to stay back, he ends up being late on the fastball. He's caught in between, and for a hitter that's always a tough spot.

    "We're just trying to stay positive. ... basically told him, 'Keep your head up, keep plugging away and keep on working.' During the first part of the season, he was mainly responsible for our success, and we feel that he's capable of carrying us again."

    Jockeying for first place with the Dodgers for weeks now, the Padres have played two fewer games then their Los Angeles rivals. In the final three weeks of the season, the Dodgers are off on three consecutive Mondays -- Sept. 10, 17 and 24. San Diego also has Sept. 10 off, but then closes with games on 20 consecutive days -- including a four-game trip to end the season in Milwaukee, against a Brewer team currently trying to fight off the Chicago Cubs for the NL Central title. If Milwaukee has clinched by then, it could be a cakewalk for the Padres, but if the Brewers need the wins, the Padres could have a rough final hurdle for the playoffs.

    The Dodgers finish their season against the team that loves to hate them, San Francisco Giants -- but in Los Angeles.

    While "Big Unit" Randy Johnson continues on the rehab road, the guy Arizona Diamondback fans have begun calling the "Petit Unit" -- Yusmeiro Petit -- is winning people over. Petit pitched six shutout innings to lead Arizona over the Cubs on Sunday, 3-0. Petit now has a 2.54 ERA in five starts totaling 28 1/3 innings for the Diamondbacks.

    "All hail, in particular, the Petit Unit, who did what he does best: throws quality strikes," wrote Jim McLennan at AZ Snakepit. "In six shutout innings, he allowed only three hits, walked none and struck out five. A phenomenal performance, and the Marlins must be kicking themselves for letting go of Petit -- effectively trading him for Byung-Hung Kim (Arizona traded Jorge Julio to Florida for Petit -- Julio then went to Colorado for Kim) . Did I mention that the kid is only 22, and won't turn 23 until the off-season? My only concern is that he hasn't gone past six innings since his debut, though since he hasn't thrown more than 90 pitches in any outing, it's hard to tell if this is stamina-related or not."

    Petit's victory got the Diamondbacks back within 3 1/2 games of the Dodgers and 2 1/2 games of a wild-card spot, as well as giving them two games of separation from the Colorado Rockies, who tied with them for third place after Friday's games.

    Brad Hawpe of Colorado may have 17 home runs, a .387 on-base percentage and a .544 slugging percentage, but Colorado has begun platooning him against left-handed pitchers with Ryan Spilborghs.

    Against lefties this season, Spilborghs is 17 for 40 with five walks, four doubles and three home runs, which translates into a .489 on-base percentage and .750 slugging percentage. Hawpe is 15 for 79 with a .273 on-base percentage and .278 slugging percentage.

    "It's really in the best interest of the ballclub to give those at-bats to Spilborghs right now," Rockies manager Clint Hurdle told Michael Phillips of MLB.com.


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