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Monday, August 16, 2010
L.A. needs an exterminator

By Tony Jackson
ESPNLosAngeles.com

ATLANTA -- As he held court with reporters in a deathly quiet clubhouse after Monday night's game, another snatch-defeat-from-the-jaws-of-victory loss for the Los Angeles Dodgers, right-hander Chad Billingsley noticed a large cockroach crawling across the carpet toward his locker. Although he won't use that locker again until sometime next season, Billingsley still made a quick move to kick the intruder out.

"Infestation," Billingsley said, loudly.

And how.

The Dodgers, fresh from a crushing, 4-3 loss to the Atlanta Braves before 20,414 at Turner Field, appear to be in bad need of an exterminator. Or perhaps an exorcist. Whoever it is that can get rid of whatever it is that has invaded this team's collective psyche, the Dodgers need that person, and they need them badly.

Then again, maybe they just need a closer.

Hong-Chih Kuo
After taking Jonathan Broxton out of the closer role, the Dodgers don't have a clear option at that position.

With All-Star Jonathan Broxton still banished to the middle innings while he tries to right himself, Dodgers manager Joe Torre tried to use Hong-Chih Kuo in that role for the second time in three days. When that didn't work -- Kuo sailed through the eighth inning on seven pitches, but got into immediate trouble in the ninth -- Torre tried to use Octavio Dotel, who spent the entire season as a closer in Pittsburgh before being traded to the Dodgers at the deadline.

When that didn't work, either -- Dotel failed to record an out, issuing a bases-loaded walk to David Ross to cut the Dodgers' lead to 3-2 and giving up a game-winning, two-run single to Melky Cabrera -- Torre was out of answers.

"That ninth inning is always a tense time," Torre said. "You can never sit back and relax with a two- or three-run lead. That's why you have your closer in there."

Except that right now, it isn't exactly clear who the Dodgers' closer is, or even if they have one. Kuo started the ninth by giving up a consecutive singles to Alex Gonzalez and Brian McCann, and in the final inning of the final game of a nightmarish seven-game road trip in which the Dodgers (60-59) already had let a seven-run, eighth-inning let get away, it was fairly apparent what was eventually going to happen.

"That second inning, I just couldn't locate that well," Kuo said. "I was in and out. I threw a couple of fastballs down the middle to McCann. I was ahead of him 1-2, so I was supposed to get him out."

After Kuo wild-pitched the runners to second and third, he got Troy Glaus out when first baseman James Loney made a nice, over-the-shoulder catch up the line in foul territory. Kuo (3-2) then walked Brooks Conrad on four pitches and turned the game over to Dotel.

Two batters later, Cabrera poked one through the left side between third and short.

"It was a fastball away," Dotel said. "He got a good pitch to hit. I threw a couple of pitches close, but they didn't go my way. I had my command. My job there is just to make good pitches because of the situation, with the bases loaded."

Then again, maybe the Dodgers just need someone who can drive in a run.

In losing three of four to the Braves, the Dodgers scored a grand total of six runs in the series. Even more disturbing than that, though, is this: in the entire, four-game series, the Dodgers had one -- one -- hit that drove in a run, that being Andre Ethier's RBI double with one out in the first inning of the finale that scored Ryan Theriot from first.

The Dodgers' other five runs in the series scored on, in order, a doubleplay grounder, a sacrifice fly, another double play grounder and a three-base throwing error by Conrad, the Braves third baseman.

Not exactly a recipe for success.

"It has been a struggle, no question," Torre said. "We have been fighting it. ... This next homestand, starting [Tuesday], is going to be extremely important for us, because we have had some success at home. We need to get something going to get us back into a good frame of mind. We just have to have an impressive run. You get to a point of being [43] games from the end of the season, and we're going in the wrong direction right now."

Indeed, the Dodgers are a more respectable 36-24 at home, where they will play their next six games against the Colorado Rockies and Cincinnati Reds. But unless they find someone who can make a ninth-inning lead hold up, unless they find someone who can deliver a clutch hit with a runner or two in scoring position, and maybe even unless they can find that aforementioned exorcist to rid them of their demons, well, it might not even matter anymore.

Footnote

Billingsley continued a second-half surge that seems to have been obscured somewhat by the overall failings of the club. He went seven innings, giving up a run on five hits and struck out eight while walking only one.

Billingsley was bombed for seven runs in four innings in his first start of the second half on July 16 at St. Louis. In six subsequent starts, he has posted a 1.33 ERA while allowing a total of 27 hits over 40 2/3 innings, giving up six runs and posting a strikeout-to-walk ratio of just better than 2:1.

For all that, Billingsley is 2-2 with two no-decisions in those starts, and the Dodgers have lost four of those six games.

"It's definitely a tough thing to swallow," Billingsley said after watching this performance get wasted in the ninth inning. "You just have to come back tomorrow. You can't dwell on this game."

By the Numbers

81⅓ -- consecutive innings by Billingsley without a home run allowed, the second-longest active streak in the majors behind Francisco Liriano of the Minnesota Twins, who has pitched 95⅓ innings without giving up a homer. Billingsley has now made 12 consecutive starts without giving up a home run since he gave up home runs to Justin Upton, Chris Young and Chris Snyder of the Arizona Diamondbacks, all in the first two innings in a game in which he wound up going eight innings, on May 31 at Dodger Stadium. (Source: ESPN Stats & Information).

By the Numbers II

12 -- game-hitting streak for Dodgers left fielder Scott Podsednik that was snapped on Monday night, when he went 0-for-3 with two flyouts to left, a popup to short and a walk. Podsednik, whom the Dodgers acquired from the Kansas City Royals on July 28 for minor league catcher Lucas May and pitcher Elisaul Pimentel, batted .380 (19-for-50) during the streak.

Key Moment

After Atlanta's Omar Infante led off the bottom of the sixth with a triple at a point when the Dodgers still led 1-0, Braves rookie Jason Heyward smoked a ball toward right field. The Dodgers' Andre Ethier tracked the ball while going back toward the wall, timed his leap perfectly and made a highlight-reel catch, turning what would have been at least an RBI double -- and a runner on second with nobody out for the Braves -- into nothing more than a game-tying sacrifice fly.

Looking Ahead

The Dodgers begin a critical three-game series (is there any other kind of series for the Dodgers at this point?) against the Colorado Rockies on Tuesday night at Dodger Stadium, with all three games set for 7:10 p.m. PT. Left-hander Clayton Kershaw (10-7, 3.17), who was sent back to Los Angeles ahead of the team on Monday so he could avoid the overnight flight and quick turnaround, will start the opener for the Dodgers. He has a 0.75 ERA (two earned runs, 24 innings) in four career starts at home against the Rockies. Right-hander Jhoulys Chacin (5-8, 4.04) will start for the Rockies in place of lefty Jeff Francis, who was scheduled to start but instead was placed on the 15-day disabled list Saturday with soreness in his shoulder.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.