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Staff Questions Are at Fever Pitch

Baseball: What was supposed to be a solid foundation for the Dodgers is already showing cracks, but Evans isn't panicking.

April 05, 2002|JASON REID | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Dodger rotation is already under the microscope and stirring concern despite an encouraging effort Thursday night from left-hander Odalis Perez in a 3-0 loss to the San Francisco Giants at Dodger Stadium. The season has only started, but the Dodgers are on the defensive and searching for answers again.

"The stuff that we counted on, our pitching, really hasn't been there so far," second baseman Mark Grudzielanek said. "We also haven't done a thing offensively, so it magnifies it even more when you lose [big].

"But there's no question that you can't help but look at [the rotation]. We have to hope that everyone gets comfortable here rather quickly."

The Dodgers believe the rotation will provide a solid foundation for a team not expected to be one of the major leagues' top run producers. However, the Nos. 1 and 2 starters began poorly, and the Giants completed a season-opening sweep although Perez pitched effectively and aggressively for 52/3 innings in his Dodger debut.

Kevin Brown and Hideo Nomo were chased early in consecutive blowout losses, and the rest of the new-look unit has issues too.

Will Andy Ashby's surgically repaired right elbow cooperate for 30 or more starts? Can talented but jittery Japanese left-hander Kazuhisa Ishii overcome his anxiety and contribute in his first season in the big leagues? And although Perez provided some optimism Thursday, he was inconsistent in parts of three seasons with the Atlanta Braves.

"These next [two] games are big in the sense that we just need to see some [positive] signs," catcher Paul Lo Duca said. "Is Andy fully back? Can Ishii do this at an every fifth-day level? We obviously want to win them, but to see how the guys throw is more important."

Baseball officials said the Dodgers won't contend in the National League West unless the rotation excels because of their deficiencies on offense, and the team's architect acknowledges the group is off to a shaky start.

"Obviously, no one liked what happened the first couple of days," General Manager Dan Evans said of the Dodgers being outscored, 21-2, in losing the first two games. "The problem is that the focus is immense simply because it's the first two games of the season, but we know that our pitching staff is going to be solid.

"We think that was an aberration, and we're not concerned about where we are over the long haul of 162 games. Things happen at this time of the year. The key is not to overreact as a result of one or two games."

The fans' reaction was predictably bad.

They booed Brown in a 9-2 opening-day loss, directing their frustration at the staff ace who gave up nine hits--including two home runs--and seven earned runs. Many questioned whether Brown, who did not possess his typical sharp command, should have started the opener after struggling in spring training.

The right-hander, who also underwent elbow surgery last season, is struggling with his release point and gradually building endurance, and one NL executive said it might have been wiser for the Dodgers to work him in slowly. They could have put Brown at the back end of the rotation, giving his elbow more time to recover, instead of giving him another starring role.

Nomo wasn't much better than Brown in a wild three-inning outing in Wednesday's 12-0 loss. Manager Jim Tracy yanked the right-hander in the first start of his second stint with the Dodgers after he walked six and threw only 44 strikes in 88 pitches.

Nomo also gave up six hits, including a homer, and four runs. The Dodgers gave Nomo a two-year, $13.25-million contract after he had a 5.34 earned-run average in the second half of last season for Boston.

He was 3-1 with a 1.80 ERA this spring, but scouts said Nomo was throwing in the mid-80s without much movement on his pitches against the Giants.

"We've got some experienced baseball people here, and we know where our strengths are and where our weaknesses are," Evans said. "Yes, we've had a [few] bad games and everybody knows it.

"Does that change the way we view our club and our [pitching] staff in general? No. I understand the fans would be concerned.... but I think we will have more quality outings than bad ones."

Dodger fans are keeping their fingers crossed.

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