HOUSTON -- In a season when the collective collapse of the Los Angeles Dodgers' bullpen has been well-documented, when the individual failures of Jonathan Broxton and George Sherrill have been front and center, when the multiple unplanned absences of Ronald Belisario have left glaring holes that couldn't be ignored, Ramon Troncoso has spent the season flying mostly below the radar -- and occasionally below the major league level.
But on Sunday, in the Dodgers' 7-4 loss to the Houston Astros in front of 30,240 at Minute Maid Park, Troncoso no longer had the luxury of hiding his own ineptitude behind everyone else's.
After the Dodgers battled back from an early four-run deficit that rookie Carlos Monasterios -- proving once again he isn't quite ready to be a major league starter -- had put them in, the game found Troncoso in the bottom of the fifth. The third-year major leaguer gave up doubles to three of the first five batters he faced, giving the Astros a 6-4 lead that would carry them the rest of the way.
Troncoso didn't give up another run in his two-inning stint, but he was in constant trouble, giving up five hits and stranding four runners, three of them in scoring position. His performance provided a microcosm of sorts of his star-crossed season. This latest implosion left him with a 4.84 ERA in 44 major league appearances this season, and he wasn't any better during his two stints at Triple-A Albuquerque, where he posted a 5.73 in 15 games.
So whatever happened to the guy who made the team out of spring training two years ago after only half a season at Double-A; the guy who saved the Dodgers' bacon on April 25, 2009, when he came out of the bullpen and pitched four shutout innings, giving up one hit, to protect a tenuous one-run lead and record his first career save; the guy who became an integral and even essential member of what probably was the National League's best bullpen just a year ago, when he had a 2.72 ERA in 73 appearances?
"I wish I had an answer," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "Some days, he goes out there and has that good sinker. Other days, it goes side to side, more east and west than north and south. I know for a time there he fell in love with his curveball and I blame that for the results he was getting.
"Right now, it doesn't look like the same energy level we have seen in the past."
Both Torre and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt suggested Troncoso's confidence level isn't the same, either -- a notion Troncoso flatly rejected -- but what is crystal clear is that Torre's confidence in Troncoso has waned considerably. One of the few popular criticisms of Torre as a manager is that he tends to overwork relievers who are pitching well. In light of that, it is especially telling that since his last big league call-up on Aug. 30, Troncoso has made only three appearances.
Two of those three have come in games in which Monasterios started and lasted less than three innings, creating a spot for a long reliever.
"I feel good," Troncoso said. "I have been doing all the work I know I have to do. I wouldn't call it frustrating. It's just part of the job. You can't guarantee that you're going to make perfect pitches every time."
Another factor could be that Troncoso (1-3) has been around the league long enough now that scouting reports have caught up to him, and he hasn't adjusted yet -- possibly because when he's right, his sinker is nasty enough that he doesn't really have to.
"When his sinker is on, when it's down in the zone, that is still his pitch and he is still going to get ground balls with it," Honeycutt said. "But if he gets the ball up a little bit, the hitters pretty much know there isn't going to be a lot of variance. Maybe he has to be a little bit more fine than some other guys because he isn't overpowering."
Once Troncoso dug the Dodgers (71-73) another hole, they couldn't climb out a second time. They wasted a leadoff double by James Loney in the sixth, and a spectacular catch by fleet Astros center fielder Michael Bourn robbed Ryan Theriot of at least a double and an RBI in the seventh. The Dodgers' final nine batters went down in order.
It was revealed for the first time after the game that Dodgers left fielder Scott Podsednik, who has been out of the lineup for each of the past three games, has been battling plantar fasciitis in his left foot. It also was revealed by Torre that although Podsednik is expected to be physically ready to play in the Dodgers' next game Tuesday night at San Francisco, that doesn't mean he will.
Jay Gibbons, the seven-year veteran who is playing in the majors for the first time in three years, slammed a three-run homer into the second deck in right field in the fourth inning, his fifth homer since the Dodgers purchased his contract from Triple-A Albuquerque on Aug. 8. He is hitting .349 with 15 RBIs and a .404 on-base percentage.
Podsednik, whom the Dodgers acquired from the Kansas City Royals on July 28, is hitting .262 since that trade, with a .312 OBP.
"I think right now, [Gibbons] is going to play a good portion of the time," Torre said. "With what Gibby is showing us, he certainly deserves more time out there, and he will probably get it."
Scene and heard
In keeping with an annual Dodgers tradition -- and, in fact, a tradition on most major league clubs -- after the September call-ups arrive, all the team's rookies were forced to wear humiliating clothing on a charter flight to San Francisco after the game.
This year, the attire of choice varied from the bright-yellow fairy-princess costume, complete with wings and tutu, that John Ely was forced to wear to the body-hugging tank top and extra-large diaper (or something fashioned to resemble a diaper) that Monasterios was made to sport.
In past years, Dodgers rookies were forced to wear Hooters waitress uniforms, full-length dresses and cabaret-like ensembles.
After having its second-round playoff series opener with Lake County rained out Saturday night, the Dodgers' low-Single-A Great Lakes affiliate began the series with a 10-8 victory Sunday.
Designated hitter Brian Cavazos-Galvez, last year's 12th-round draft pick out of the University of New Mexico, went 4-for-5 with a triple, a two-run homer and five RBIs. Luis Vasquez, a reliever from the Dominican Republic who has been in the organization since 2005, got Lake County's Casey Frawley, a Cleveland Indians prospect, to ground into a double play to end the game with the tying runs on base.
The best-of-three series now shifts to Lake County for Game 2 on Monday and a possible Game 3 on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, after losing Game 1 of its best-of-three first-round Pioneer League series to Orem on Saturday night, the Dodgers' advanced-Rookie League Ogden affiliate fell behind 7-0 after the top of the first inning of Game 2, but had come back to tie the score 7-7 after four. Leon Landry, Jacob Lemmerman and Nick Akins had driven in two runs apiece.
Quote of the day
The following exchange took place during the Dodgers' radio broadcast of Sunday's game, when Charley Steiner and Rick Monday were discussing the fact that veterans Ryan Theriot and Jamey Carroll had bought rookies and first-time call-ups John Lindsey and Russ Mitchell each a suit at a high-end department store near the team's hotel in Houston:
Steiner: "They didn't go to some three-for-the-price-of-one store. They went all out."
Monday: "No, they went to a one-for-the-price-of-three store."
The Dodgers flew to San Francisco after the game and will enjoy an off day there Monday before beginning a three-game series with the Giants on Tuesday night, when Torre says he will go back to a more conventional lineup because the Giants are fighting for a playoff spot. Clayton Kershaw (11-10, 2.99) will take the mound for the Dodgers in the opener, six days after taking the loss against the San Diego Padres despite giving up only two runs in seven innings. He has a 1.93 career ERA against the Giants. Veteran lefty Barry Zito (8-12, 4.14) will go for the Giants. He has lost each of his past six starts and tied his career worst by losing each of his past eight decisions.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.