Commentary

Bullpen collapse an unexpected issue

Again relievers blow a lead, highlighting an area Dodgers management thought was fine

Updated: September 26, 2010, 11:39 PM ET
By Tony Jackson | ESPNLosAngeles.com

PHOENIX -- The Los Angeles Dodgers suffered another one of those snatch-defeat-from-the-jaws-of-victory meltdowns in the eighth inning Sunday, leading to a 5-4 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks before 37,911 at Chase Field, but the Dodgers have reached a point in their season when the feeling after a game like this is more one of numbness than one of having been kicked in the stomach.

In the immediate aftermath, Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti -- who has absorbed more of those kicks to the stomach than he ever dreamed he would have to this year -- was asked a question with a rather obvious answer.

Will the team's bullpen be a major focus this winter?

Chad Billingsley
Jennifer Stewart/US Presswire Chad Billingsley tied his career high with 13 strikeouts, but the Dodgers couldn't give him a victory.

"I think when you have the kind of year we have just been through, if you're not looking at every aspect of your club, you aren't doing your job," Colletti said. "When the most predictable part of your team is your bench, that isn't good enough. From the presentation all the way through the game, every facet of the game needs to be examined."

Indeed, the Dodgers haven't produced offensively, ranking in the lower half of the National League in both batting average and runs scored. Their starting pitching has been decent, even solid at times, but with 60 percent of their rotation eligible for free agency, it will have to be addressed during the offseason. And that presentation Colletti mentioned, well, as it became clear in recent weeks the season was a lost cause, let's just say there was a visible lack of urgency in the team's overall approach on the field.

But the one area Colletti and manager Joe Torre never imagined would collapse on them was the bullpen, which statistically was the best in the majors last year and, with the exception of free-agent defection Guillermo Mota, returned virtually intact -- including two All-Star closers from last year, Jonathan Broxton and George Sherrill, at the back end.

To that end, this otherwise meaningless, late-season game between the bad Dodgers (75-81) and the even-worse Diamondbacks perfectly encapsulated the Dodgers' season.

There was an outstanding performance by Chad Billingsley, who has taken the biggest one-season leap forward of his career this year. He gave up a run and four hits over seven innings and tied his career high with 13 strikeouts, an impressive number even if it did come against those perpetual strikeout machines that can be found all the way up and down the Diamondbacks' lineup. But Billingsley left after seven innings and 121 pitches, the Dodgers leading 4-1 at the time, and after Ronald Belisario recorded the first out in the eighth and was immediately lifted, it all fell apart again.

"We just had a plan, and that was what we were going to do," Torre said. "Again, we were just going to use a little bit of Belisario because we have other games to play. We just felt we wanted to go lefty until we got to [cleanup hitter Chris] Young, and none of it worked."

First, the left-handed Sherrill came in, and although his disastrous, mechanically challenged first half is a distant memory now, he was suddenly once again completely ineffective. He walked Stephen Drew, gave up a two-run homer to Tony Abreu and gave up a single to Kelly Johnson, then was lifted without having retired a batter.

Then, Broxton came in. He threw one pitch to Young, who launched it into the left center-field seats to put the Diamondbacks in front. Broxton (5-6) didn't give up another run, but he did give up another hit and a walk, and the blown save was his seventh of the season.

When the carnage finally ended, the Dodgers' bullpen had a collective ERA (4.16) more than a run higher than its major league-best figure (3.14) of a year ago. That includes a 7.08 for Sherrill, who was an All-Star closer for the Baltimore Orioles last summer before they traded him to the Dodgers at the deadline and he gracefully accepted a set-up role. It also includes a 3.92 for Broxton, which isn't so glaring until you consider it was 2.11 at the All-Star break.

And the fourth-place Dodgers, who had a three-run lead with five outs to go, are now a season-worst 13 games behind the division-leading San Francisco Giants in the NL West.

If you buy the notion that Sherrill's mechanical problems, which he battled all through spring training and the first half, have now been corrected, then his implosion against the Diamondbacks can be written off as nothing more than one of those occasional lapses that all relief pitchers suffer.

But when it comes to Broxton, well, that can't be written off as much of anything. Beginning with an Aug. 12 game at Philadelphia, when he suffered his biggest and most damaging blown save of the season, Broxton has given up 11 runs and 12 hits over 15 innings, with 12 strikeouts and 11 walks. He has an ERA of 6.60, and opposing batters have hit .310 off him.

And the reality is Broxton is signed for next year at $7 million.

Broxton's biggest enemy clearly isn't the opposing hitters. Rather, it is himself, and his obvious lack of confidence in his pitches. Mental fortitude is an absolute necessity for a major league closer, as is an ability to turn the page on a bad outing.

Given that, the question has to be asked: Is Broxton -- his two-time All-Star status notwithstanding -- mentally strong enough to be a closer at this level?

"I [think he is], I really do," Torre said. "Again, with young kids, there are a lot of hills and valleys. At some point, the difference between good and bad isn't going to be as wide as it is right now. ... I certainly think he has the insides to do it."

And apparently, so does Torre's successor, incoming Dodgers manager Don Mattingly.

"We believe in him, and when I say we, I mean Donnie and myself," Torre said. "I know [Mattingly] feels very strongly that Brox will go to spring training next year with that [closer's] role in mind."

For the moment, Mattingly concurs.

"We have talked about it, yeah," he said. "It has been a tough year. I'm not really concerned about it at this point."

Right now, of course, Mattingly doesn't have to be concerned about it. But unless Broxton does some serious soul-searching over the winter, unless he comes to spring training believing in himself as much as Torre and Mattingly believe in him, and unless he can put this period of almost automatic failure behind him, it will become Mattingly's problem fairly quickly.

Footnote

Rod Barajas, the veteran catcher the Dodgers acquired on a waiver claim from the New York Mets on Aug. 22 and the one who couldn't stop gushing about how happy he was to join the team he grew up rooting for in Norwalk, hit a two-run homer in the top of the eighth inning, his fifth in 22 games for the Dodgers.

Russell Martin, the two-time All-Star whose hip injury on Aug. 3 knocked him out for the season, hit five home runs in 97 games for the Dodgers this year.

That and the recent offensive breakout of longtime catching prospect A.J. Ellis could add up to an intriguing winter for the Dodgers as far as their catching situation is concerned.

Before getting hurt, Martin hit .248 with five homers and 26 RBIs, dropping off in all three of those categories for the third year in a row. He is making $5.05 million this year and again is eligible for arbitration this winter, and although there is a provision in the basic agreement allowing for pay cuts for arbitration-eligible players, that never happens. If the Dodgers go to arbitration with Martin, he will get a significant raise, and the only way they can avoid that is to decline to offer him a contract.

Consider also that Barajas is hitting .288 since coming to the Dodgers. His base salary of $900,000 is less than one fifth of Martin's, although the Dodgers might have to go a little higher than that to re-sign him. And any concerns about his age -- Barajas is 35 -- and his ability to catch every day could be offset by the fact Ellis, who has revamped his swing under the tutelage of Mattingly and instructor Jeff Pentland, is hitting .478 this month.

In short, Barajas and Ellis conceivably could split time equally, give or take, behind the plate for the Dodgers next season, with their combined salaries roughly a quarter of what Martin stands to get in arbitration.

"I would love to [come back]," Barajas said. "I don't know what the offseason is going to bring, so I just have to sit back and see what happens. I'm not going to get my hopes up, and I'm going to try not to think about it. I certainly don't want to do anything to put any more pressure on myself."

Barajas also said it was too early to speculate as to whether he might be willing to take a hometown discount to stay with the Dodgers, especially without knowing what kind of market might be available to him as a free agent.

Injury update

Dodgers first baseman John Lindsey won't need surgery on his broken left hand, which he suffered when he was hit by a pitch from Diamondbacks rookie Daniel Hudson in the seventh inning Saturday night.

Stan Conte, the Dodgers' director of medical services, said Lindsey's X-rays were sent to three doctors, including team physician Dr. Neal ElAttrache, and all were of the opinion that the fractured fourth metacarpal will heal without surgery.

Conte said Lindsey, who is done for the season, will remain with the team for the rest of this final trip instead of returning to Los Angeles.

Lindsey received his first big league call-up earlier this month after 16 seasons in the minors. He said he has every intention of playing again next year, when he is expected to be fully recovered well in advance of spring training.

By the numbers

5 -- Dodgers pitchers with at least two career 13-strikeout games before their 27th birthdays since the team moved west from Brooklyn in 1958, Billingsley becoming the second when he struck out 13 Diamondbacks hitters on Sunday. The others were Sandy Koufax, who had 14 such games before turning 27; Don Drysdale (eight); Hideo Nomo (five); and Fernando Valenzuela (four), according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Looking ahead

The Dodgers get one, final chance to have an impact on the playoff race when they play a three-game series with the Colorado Rockies, who are teetering on the edge of elimination, beginning Monday night at Coors Field. The third-place Rockies trail the division-leading San Francisco Giants by 4½ games. A three-game sweep by the Dodgers would eliminate the Rockies no matter what the Giants do, and even by taking two of three, the Dodgers could knock the Rockies out of the race if the Giants win either of the first two games of their three-game series with the Diamondbacks, which begins Tuesday at AT&T Park.

Left-hander Ted Lilly (8-12, 3.83) will take the mound for the Dodgers in the opener after being rocked for seven runs and nine hits over four innings on Aug. 29 at Coors. Right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez (19-7, 3.00) will attempt to become the major leagues' fourth 20-game winner this season, but he might have already been there if the Dodgers hadn't beaten him twice.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.

Tony Jackson

ESPNLosAngeles.com

SPONSORED HEADLINES

ALSO SEE

MORE MLB HEADLINES