LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Dodgers weren't supposed to lose on Saturday night. Not when first place in the National League West was so close they could almost touch it. Not when Chad Billingsley was working on yet another masterpiece.
And certainly not when they had handed a late-inning lead to their bullpen, which was once again starting to look suspiciously like the National League's best assemblage of relievers.
Before Ramon Troncoso, Ronald Belisario and Charlie Haeger combined to give up six runs and allow a couple of inherited runners to score as well, sticking the Dodgers with a 9-3 loss to the Atlanta Braves before 48,207 at Dodger Stadium, the bullpen was on quite a roll.
Dodgers relievers had combined to pitch 22 1/3 consecutive innings over six games without giving up an earned run. Over the previous 25 games, the 'pen had posted a 2.28 ERA, the best in baseball during that time, while holding opposing batters to a .186 average. In other words, it was beginning to resemble that same, airtight unit that had been such a major part of the Dodgers' run to a second consecutive division title last season.
So why the sudden reversal?
And more important, is it anything more than a momentary hiccup?
"The law of averages sometimes catches up with you," Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said. "They haven't had to work too hard lately, especially this week. Hopefully, this was just a bad night. These last few weeks, they have been pretty good."
In order to truly examine what went wrong, you really need to look at each of the three implosions by the three different relievers individually.
First, there was Troncoso, whom, it could be argued, was severely overused early in the season. In April, Troncoso never went more than one game without pitching, feeding into what might be the one legitimate knock against Dodgers manager Joe Torre, that he has a habit of relying too heavily on reliable middle relievers.
But with the Dodgers' starters now routinely going much deeper in games than they did early in the season, the collective workload of the relievers has lightened somewhat, and the individual workload of Troncoso has lightened considerably. Since the start of May, he has gone at least two consecutive days without pitching eight different times, so fatigue shouldn't be a factor at this point.
Torre did use Troncoso in three consecutive games on the previous homestand, and in the last of those three appearances, Troncoso was charged with three earned runs and failed to retire a batter. He also gave up runs in each of his next two outings, and gave up a total of four home runs over those three appearances.
Since then, though, Torre has backed off, and Troncoso has benefited -- at least until Saturday. He had been scoreless over his three previous appearances, giving up only one hit over 3 1/3 innings, all of which would seem to suggest that for Troncoso, at least, this was nothing more than a passing blemish.
Which brings us to Belisario. Although he missed the first two weeks of the season because of his late arrival to spring training, and although it took him a while to get on track once he was finally activated, he had been lights-out of late. He hadn't allowed any runners, neither his own nor the ones he inherited, to score in his previous five appearances, giving up two hits over 4 2/3 innings during that span.
So ditto Belisario, who appears to have simply had an aberrational bad night.
Finally, there was the knuckleballing Haeger, who was making his first appearance since that fateful start against Colorado on May 8 in which he was bombed for five runs and couldn't retire a single batter, after which he went onto the disabled list with, ummmmm, plantar fasciitis. In the eighth inning, he didn't look much different, walking two of the first four batters he faced and giving up two runs. But with the game's outcome no longer in question, he came back to pitch a one-hit, scoreless ninth.
The jury is still out on Haeger, but the good news there is that he doesn't figure to see much more than mop-up duty from here on out, at least out of the bullpen -- although Torre did say at one point last week that he would like to give Haeger at least one more start before Vicente Padilla comes off the disabled list, just so he can get some idea of what kind of pitcher Haeger is going to be going forward.
At any rate, the Dodgers (32-24), who led 2-0 heading into that fateful, seven-run seventh and were nine outs away from leapfrogging San Diego into first place, will have to wait at least one more day before taking over the NL West lead.
Honeycutt did point out one factor that might have played a role in this one-game implosion: with George Sherrill on the disabled list, the Dodgers have only one left-hander in their 'pen in Hong-Chih Kuo. Although Kuo has been outstanding all year, his history of arm problems limits how often he can be used. He had pitched 1 1/3 innings on Friday night, meaning he was off-limits Saturday -- and three of the key hits the Braves got while scoring nine runs in the seventh and eighth innings were delivered by lefty-hitting Nate McLouth and lefty-hitting Brian McCann.
"This is definitely a time when a second left-hander would be useful to bring in for some of those situations," Honeycutt said.
With this one stinker of a performance, the collective ERA of the Dodgers' bullpen rose by more than two-tenths of a run, from 3.83 to 4.06.
"You would like to think good things are going to happen every time you pick up the phone," Torre said. "But unfortunately, this time, the roof caved in."
Dodgers third baseman Casey Blake said after the game there was no change, either better or worse, in his lower back. He said he planned to try some physical activity before the game Sunday, which probably will be the final test for club officials as to whether to put Blake on the 15-day disabled list.
"That will kind of give us an idea where we're at and how we need to proceed," Blake said.
If Blake has to be shelved, the Dodgers essentially would have three options for replacing him on the active roster.
First, with an open spot on the 40-man roster, they could purchase the contract of utility infielder Nick Green, who was designated for assignment on May 28, cleared waivers and only Saturday agreed to accept an assignment back to Triple-A Albuquerque. Or, they could recall infielder Chin-lung Hu, who is hitting .295 for Albuquerque. Or, they could recall infielder Ivan De Jesus, who has never played in the majors and has less than half a season of experience at Triple-A but has been on fire of late, batting .410 (16-for-39) in his past 10 games for the Isotopes.
The four-game showdown between the National League's hottest teams concludes with a matchup of youth versus experience, Dodgers rookie sensation John Ely (3-2, 2.54) taking the mound against veteran right-hander, two-time All-Star and one-time American League Cy Young Award runner-up Tim Hudson (6-1, 2.30), who is off to an outstanding start in his 12th major league season. Ely is coming off the best of his six consecutive quality starts, having shut out the Arizona Diamondbacks on two hits over seven innings Tuesday night.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.