Rich with starting pitching in April, the Dodgers have been disarmed by injuries
As he was loosening up for the third inning of a start against the Astros on May 26, Dodgers righthander Luke Prokopec inadvertently nailed a sparrow that had glided into the path of one of his warmup pitches. There was no explosion of feathers, as there had been when the Diamondbacks' Randy Johnson accidentally blasted a dove in spring training, but the sparrow did drop, lifeless, in front of home plate. Prokopec was shocked—just the previous day he had been discussing Johnson's deadly strike with first base coach John Shelby. "I guaranteed that would never happen again," Prokopec says. "Then I went out and did it."
When the season began, even a run of bird homicides seemed more probable than the jam in which Los Angeles finds itself. With their Opening Day rotation, considered the best in the National League, racked by injuries, the Dodgers are scrambling for healthy arms. Righthander Andy Ashby, who was given a three-year, $225 million free-agent deal last December, was lost for the season with a torn elbow muscle after two starts. Then last month righthander Darren Dreifort, who was re-signed to a five-year, $55 million contract in December, tore a ligament in his pitching elbow. He had surgery and might not be back until 2003. In what could be the crudest blow, ace righthander Kevin Brown (8-4, 2.95 ERA), who had been on the disabled list twice already this year, left his start Sunday with what was thought to be a torn elbow muscle. He was to be examined on Monday, and the rest of his season could be in jeopardy.
"Everyone laughed when this team said it was concerned about pitching depth," says interim general manager Dave Wallace. "We don't have to [acquire another pitcher], but we'd like to."
Actually L.A., which at week's end was eight games over .500 and trailed first-place Arizona by 3� games in the NL West, should be thankful for the depth it did have. The Dodgers have propped up the rotation with the callow Prokopec, 23, and righty Eric Gagne, 25, who between them had made only 27 major league starts before this year, and veteran righthander Terry Adams, a 28-year-old converted reliever.
Prokopec, who was 6-4 with a 3.96 ERA at week's end, has done the most to keep LA in contention. An Australian native who lives in Renmark, South Australia, he had planned to pitch for his country in the Sydney Olympics before the Dodgers called him up early last September. He went 1-1 with a 3.00 ERA in five appearances, including three starts, and figured if he pitched well at Triple A this year, he might get another call-up.
Prokopec made an emergency start for the Dodgers in the season's first week, going 7? innings to get the decision in a 10-1 win over the Giants, but was then sent to Triple A. He was called up for good after Ashby went on the DL on April 18 and went 5-1 in his next seven starts. A sore muscle on his right side and a troublesome blister on his right middle finger limited his effectiveness in June and early July, and he hadn't won since that deadly strike on the bird. Last Saturday, though, he held the A's to three hits and one run in 7? innings of a game that L.A. won in 15 innings, and in his last five starts he had a 2.67 ERA and four no-decisions.
Relying on the trio of Prokopec, Gagne and Adams in a pennant race is risky, which is why Wallace is looking to make a trade. The Dodgers are one of several teams to have shown interest in Rockies righthander Pedro Astacio, one of the few quality starters available.
Besides, with the majors' third highest payroll entering the season—$109 million, $41 million of which is eaten up by intended starters Brown, Dreifort, Ashby and All-Star righthander Chan Ho Park (8-6, 3.20)—L.A. isn't sure it can afford to take on another expensive pitcher. "We have leeway to add some [to the payroll]," says Wallace, who adds that he may have to settle for a second-rate starter or bullpen help. "Some is the key word."
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