Sunday, August 15, 2010
Dodgers running out of options
By Tony Jackson
ATLANTA -- At a point when it is becoming increasingly difficult to believe that the Los Angeles Dodgers' season isn't circling the drain, the club appears to be running out of things to rely on. That much became disturbingly clear fairly quickly on Sunday, long before the colossal indignity of a 13-1 loss to the Atlanta Braves in front of 28,105 at Turner Field finally came to a merciful end.
Vicente Padilla, the veteran right-hander who had been the Dodgers' best, most consistent starting pitcher since returning in June from a nearly two-month stint on the disabled list, suddenly isn't so good, so consistent or so reliable anymore. Before manager Joe Torre came to get him with one out in the bottom of the fifth, the Braves had ignited Padilla for eight runs on eight hits, the last of them a three-run homer by Troy Glaus that gave the Braves an 8-0 lead and buried the Dodgers yet again.
Actually, the feeling that the Dodgers had been buried had come way back in the third inning, when Melky Cabrera doubled to the gap in left-center to score Brooks Conrad from first and put the Braves up 1-0. After Jair Jurrjens bunted Cabrera to third, Torre ordered his infield to come in, another glaring sign that the Dodgers have become such a bad offensive team that even a two-run deficit seems like something they can't afford to let happen.
Omar Infante singled through that drawn-in infield, just past diving second baseman Ryan Theriot, and Cabrera trotted home with the run that made it 2-0.
With that, the Dodgers, who were held to zero, one or two runs for the 18th time in 30 games since the All-Star break, were done.
But that's an old problem that has been well-documented. Padilla's sudden ineptitude, well, that's a new issue to be dealt with.
In nine starts between the time he was activated on June 19 until Aug. 4, the night he threw a two-hit shutout in a must-win game against the San Diego Padres, Padilla went 4-2 with a 1.80 ERA, allowed 35 hits in 60 innings, held opposing hitters to a .168 batting average and a .228 on-base percentage and had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 4-1.
In two starts since that shutout -- one of which came in a game when the punchless Dodgers somehow managed to score 15 runs and win -- Padilla is 1-1 with an 11.58 ERA, he has allowed 14 hits over 9 1/3 innings, opposing batters have hit .378 with a .432 on-base percentage against him, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio has been exactly 1-1.
So what's the difference?
"He was ahead in counts early [against the Braves] and got some easy outs," Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said. "But then all of a sudden, in the third inning, it all kind of caved in a little bit. Even in [his previous start], he was good in the early part, and then they scored a bunch of runs in the fourth and got a home run off him in the fifth. Today it was the third inning and the fifth inning.
"I don't think it's fatigue. Maybe a lack of focus could be part of it."
Padilla (6-4) faced the minimum through two innings, erasing Brian McCann's leadoff single in the second by getting a double-play grounder from Glaus. But once Infante's hit in the third gave the Braves a 2-0 lead, Padilla suddenly couldn't get anybody out. Rick Ankiel got to him for another single up the middle, and Alex Gonzalez tripled home Infante and Ankiel to cap off a four-run inning that might have been worse if Padilla, after intentionally walking McCann, hadn't come back to strike out Glaus and Eric Hinske.
Padilla then retired the Braves in order in the fourth. But he began the fifth with another sudden, inexplicable meltdown, walking Ankiel and hitting Gonzalez to load the bases with none out. McCann hit a sacrifice fly, and Glaus hit the three-run homer.
That was it for Padilla, and that was pretty much it for the Dodgers (60-58).
"They hit the ball everywhere," Padilla said, with Kenji Nimura translating. "That was the problem. There was nothing I could do. I don't want to make excuses. It was just one of those days. You have to give credit to the team that is in first place."
That, of course, would be the Braves, who entered the day leading the National League East by two games. The Dodgers now find themselves so far from first place they can barely imagine it anymore. There now are exactly seven weeks remaining in the regular season, and while the odds clearly are stacked against them, the Dodgers might still have a run left in them if they can get their long-struggling offense back on track.
But the one thing they didn't think they would have to get back on track, the one thing they thought they could count on, was their starting rotation, which has been collectively stellar even during this second-half free fall. It is Padilla who has anchored that rotation for the past two months, and it is Padilla the Dodgers will count upon heavily as they desperately try to climb back into this thing.
And so, regardless of how the rest of the rotation pitches, if whatever has plagued Padilla in his past two starts doesn't go away quickly, it could be a long, depressing march to the end of the season for these Dodgers.
Dodgers reliever Ronald Belisario, whose second season in the majors has been less memorable for what he has done on the field than for all the strange circumstances that at various times have kept him off it, returned to the mound for the first time since giving up four runs and four hits and failing to retire any of the four batters he faced in Thursday night's catastrophic loss to the Philadelphia Phillies.
Although Belisario's box-score line was once again ugly, his performance was considerably better. He came in to start the seventh inning with the Dodgers trailing 9-1, struck out the first two batters he faced and got Cabrera to ground out after a two-out walk to Conrad.
"That first inning was extremely sharp," Honeycutt said. "Unfortunately, it would have been nice to let him off with one inning and have it be clean. But we kind of had a situation where we couldn't really use anybody else today."
In an eighth inning in which he should have been charged with one run on three hits -- he got Troy Glaus to hit a lazy pop fly to right field with two outs and runners on first and second -- Belisario instead wound up being charged with four runs on four hits because right fielder Jay Gibbons, who had been inserted for Andre Ethier just two innings earlier, lost Glaus' ball in the afternoon sun, resulting in it falling at his feet.
On a more positive note, the large deficit allowed Belisario to test a new split-finger pitch he has been working on, and the reviews were good.
"[Catcher Brad] Ausmus came back to the bench and said he was throwing some good splits," Honeycutt said. "He has always kind of had it, but he really hasn't thrown it. He has been working on it in his sides, but this was a situation in the game that allowed him to experiment with it a little bit."
Dodgers shortstop Rafael Furcal has had two good days in a row testing his lower back and appears to be close to starting a minor league rehabilitation assignment. In fact, if left fielder Manny Ramirez is ready to start his rehab on Wednesday as expected, he and Furcal could do their rehabs together.
"It's much better," Furcal said. "Running is the one thing that bothered me the most. But [Saturday], we tested it a little bit, and it felt way different than before. I don't know [about starting a rehab this week]. We'll just see. Every day is a new day. I wish I could start one right now."
Furcal becomes eligible for activation from the 15-day disabled list on Wednesday, but it's highly unlikely that he will be. However, if he can begin his rehab that day, he conceivably could return in time for the start of a three-game series with the Cincinnati Reds on Friday.
"We will look at some point, hopefully in the next few days, at letting him rehab for one or two [games]," Torre said.
By the Numbers
0 -- run-scoring hits by the Dodgers in the first three games of this four-game series with the Braves. The Dodgers were shut out in Thursday night's opener, then held on for a 2-1 win on Friday night after Matt Kemp hit a double-play grounder that scored James Loney from third base and Andre Ethier hit a sacrifice fly to bring in Scott Podsednik. Then, down 9-0 in the seventh inning on Sunday, Brad Ausmus grounded into a double play with the bases loaded and nobody out, allowing Kemp to score the Dodgers' only run.
Dodgers right-hander Chad Billingsley (9-7, 3.78) has averaged 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings in his career when pitching against the Braves, but despite posting a 3.82 ERA against them, he is just 1-3 in five starts and two relief appearances. Braves right-hander Tommy Hanson (8-8, 3.51), a graduate of Redlands East Valley High School, has received a total of 15 runs of support from his teammates in his eight losses this season.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.