Hong-Chih Kuo closes but will it last?
Reliever steps up to preserve a 2-1 win, but it's uncertain how often Torre will use him
ATLANTA -- In his first appearance as the Los Angeles Dodgers' primary closer, a role that allegedly is his only temporarily, Hong-Chih Kuo looked good in the box score, retiring all three of the Atlanta Braves batters he faced and striking out two of them to preserve a 2-1 Dodgers victory before a sellout crowd of 49,267 on Saturday night at Turner Field.
Although Kuo needed 20 pitches to do it, starting all three batters off with balls and going to a full count on each of his strikeout victims, Dodgers manager Joe Torre said he looked pretty good from the dugout.
"He is going to throw a lot of strikes, and he is going to challenge you," Torre said. "When he throws balls, sometimes he is overthrowing a little bit. He comes at you. To me, and I think we knew this a couple of years ago, this guy has the mentality of a closer."
So the obvious question is, why doesn't Torre name Kuo the permanent guy, at least for the rest of this possibly still-salvageable season?
The most obvious answer is that Kuo, because of his history of arm problems and arm surgeries, theoretically can't be used on consecutive days, except in extremely rare circumstances. One of those came up earlier this week in Philadelphia, when Torre used him for a full inning Wednesday, then brought him back for one batter Thursday. A full-time closer needs to be available on an everyday basis and only unavailable on those occasions when he has been used three or four days in a row.
Another answer is that Torre is holding the job in reserve for Jonathan Broxton, assuming the right-hander can get himself together enough to reclaim it.
The first issue, the one about Kuo having to be handled with kid gloves, is apparently one that doesn't sit well with the pitcher himself. Torre says he believes Kuo would like for him to loosen the reins a bit.
"He has been [pushing for that] all year long," Torre said. "He talks behind my back all the time. He doesn't come to me. He has been champing at the bit to get the ball more often, but just knowing his history and the stuff he went through last year (missing three months with an elbow strain), I think we really have to take precautions."
And to whom does Kuo express these thoughts, if not to Torre.
"Anybody who will listen to him," Torre said.
Kuo, at least when talking to reporters, denies he wants more action than Torre is willing to give him.
"I don't care about that," he said. "Every day, I just come here and try to stay healthy and get ready to pitch."
After the game, Torre didn't completely rule out using Kuo in that role again Sunday. But Torre was probably simply paying lip service to that possibility, because he qualified his statement by saying he probably will use Octavio Dotel if a save situation comes up. After all, although Dotel faced four batters in the seventh and eighth innings, retiring them all, he threw five fewer pitches than Kuo did.
The second issue, the one about the job still ultimately belonging to Broxton, well, Kuo seems to be in perfect agreement with that.
"It's just a couple of games, and then Brox will be back," he said, although in fact, Broxton's relegation to middle-relief status is expected to last a little longer than that.
But it certainly seems like a fair question to ask, why Torre won't simply stick with Kuo.
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Especially given that Broxton has blown three of his five save chances since the All-Star break. Especially given that Kuo now has converted four of his five save chances -- his only blown save came in the seventh inning against the Braves on June 4, when he gave up a two-run, game-tying double to the first batter he faced, Yunel Escobar, in a game Kuo never would have been allowed to finish regardless of how he pitched.
And especially given Kuo has been so dominating since the All-Star break, the same period of time in which Broxton has struggled so mightily.
During that stretch, Kuo has posted a 0.66 ERA (one run, 13 2/3 innings) in 12 appearances, while Broxton has posted a 9.00 ERA in nine appearances.
Maybe, just maybe, it isn't so cut and dried after all.
"To me, when Brox gets more comfortable, I still think we have to do situations," Torre said. "[Despite] the fact that Chih really can't go out there as often as a normal closer, it gives us another option, no question about it."
Don't forget, Kuo's medical history notwithstanding, it is only Torre's discretion that is preventing him from pitching more often. But if the Dodgers (60-57) can climb back into either of two races -- the National League West, where they now sit in fourth place and nine games behind the division-leading San Diego Padres, or the wild card, where they are in fifth place and 6 1/2 behind the San Francisco Giants -- Torre probably is going to go on a given night with whoever he believes gives the Dodgers their best chance of closing out a tight game.
Unless something changes dramatically over these upcoming, final seven weeks of the season, that pitcher, most of the time, is going to be Kuo.
In his third start for the Dodgers since being acquired from the Chicago Cubs at the trading deadline, veteran left-hander Ted Lilly shut out the Braves on three hits over six innings. Lilly wasn't completely in command -- he finally walked a batter in the third inning, his first since the trade, then walked another in the sixth, and he had to pitch out of a mini-jam in the fourth -- but he was good enough to run his record in a Dodgers uniform to 3-0 and shave his post-trade ERA to 1.89.
"It's nice to be able to come over and contribute," Lilly said. "I feel like I'm intent on continuing to do that throughout the year. Hopefully, it'll be enough. The guys they brought in here over the last month or so can all help this club."
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For the most part, Lilly (6-8) hasn't received much more run support since the trade than he got with the Cubs, for whom he was 3-8 despite a 3.69 ERA. Two of his three wins for the Dodgers have been by identical 2-1 scores, although the club did stake him to a four-run, first-inning lead last Sunday against the Washington Nationals before cruising to an 8-3 win.
Lilly, by the way, is the first pitcher to throw at least six innings and give up no more than five hits in each of his first three starts after joining the Dodgers since Edwin Jackson did so as a newly promoted rookie in 2003, according to ESPN Stats and Information. The last Dodgers pitcher to do that in each of his first four starts? That would be the unforgettable Al Mamaux, who did it for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1920.
Dodgers right-hander Vicente Padilla (6-3, 3.32) gave up as many runs (four) in five innings in his most recent start Tuesday night at Philadelphia as he had in his previous five starts and 34 innings combined, but the Dodgers still held on for a 15-9 win. Braves right-hander Jair Jurrjens (4-4, 4.48) missed two months earlier this season because of a hamstring strain. In eight starts since his return, he is 4-1 with a 3.14 ERA.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.