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In a circus game, the Dodgers' weak spot shows again

9/3/2014

LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals didn't exactly look like World Series contenders for much of Wednesday afternoon, considering the long line of dropped fly balls, errant throws, missed bunts and stranded runners, but they should be proud of one thing: They produced the "War and Peace" of box scores.

It features 51 players, including 18 pitchers. There would have been one more, except Dodgers outfielder Scott Van Slyke had to split in the fifth inning after he learned his wife had gone into labor. Who knows? By the time the game was over, Van Slyke might have been able to introduce the team to his newest child.

The major-league record for most players used in a game is 54, so the Dodgers' 8-5 loss in 14 innings was among the wackiest September, expanded-roster games of all time.

But when you pick through all those names -- some of them superstars, others minor leaguers tasting a cup of major league coffee -- you find the crux of the Dodgers' biggest weakness at about the halfway point of the line score. With two outs in the eighth inning, Don Mattingly elected to bring in closer Kenley Jansen for a four-out save.

"We don't want to do it a lot, but obviously you see it in the playoffs, and this is that time of year," Mattingly said. "You try to protect guys all season long, but as you get to this point of the year, you're trying to win every game."

There's nothing wrong with that rationale, and with a day off Thursday, there was reason to use Jansen, though he had pitched about 16 hours earlier in wrapping up Clayton Kershaw's gem Tuesday night.

The problem is, no one else in the Dodgers’ bullpen, aside from lefty J.P. Howell, has earned Mattingly's trust to get the ball reliably to Jansen in the ninth. So when the Dodgers had a long bottom of the eighth inning, complete with a video review of Dee Gordon's stolen base, Jansen came out a little cold in the ninth and wound up giving up three runs, which required a Dodgers rally to get the game into extra innings.

Don't lay this one at Jansen's feet. He hadn't blown a save since July 30. In his past 11 games, he had held batters to a .072 average, struck out 22 and walked two.

The Dodgers are so close to having the look of a dangerous playoff team -- if they can get there -- with the best pitcher in the game, a three-man rotation that is second to none and enough offensive versatility to avoid series-ending slumps.

But that bullpen, specifically the lack of a dominant eighth-inning option, looms as the creaky wheel that can send the Dodgers' cart crashing off course. After the game, Mattingly recited a half-hearted defense of some of his possibilities for setup men. Brian Wilson has been getting outs for the most part, though his stuff is nothing like it was last year, and Mattingly obviously didn't trust him to finish the inning after he labored to get two outs and walked Denard Span. Brandon League has decent numbers, until he pitches in a close game or inherits runners.

Both trade deadlines have come and gone. The September call-ups are already here. If the Dodgers have a solution, it's going to come from in-house, and Mattingly alluded to what might be their only salvation if they are to find a pitcher who can shut down the eighth inning and lighten Jansen's workload in September and -- they hope -- October.

"The kids are throwing the ball good," Mattingly said.

Maybe, just maybe, it's Pedro Baez.

He's a converted third baseman, and he's as raw as can be, but he also throws 98 mph, and since he came up for the second time July 8, he has given up one run in 11 games. He picked up the pieces after Jansen allowed the home run to Adam LaRoche and an RBI single to Span. Baez pitched 1 1/3 scoreless innings and struck out two batters, including Bryce Harper.

It might be a long shot, but given the dire nature of the need, the Dodgers might want to see how he responds pitching in higher pressure situations. There's not much time to lose.