YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Inside Baseball | Tim Brown / SUNDAY REPORT

Game Over? Dodgers Wish

July 09, 2006|Tim Brown

Even as Eric Gagne's elbow rehabilitation wrought an ordinary fastball, then another surgery, then more time at home, the Dodgers still envisioned late-inning permanence where everything led to Gagne, then to that line of grinning players stretched from the mound to second base.

It won't happen that way, not with Gagne in the ninth, maybe never again in L.A., and though it was more than a year coming, absolute confirmation arrived with a melancholic sigh and a wave to reality.

"It's a continuing thought process," General Manager Ned Colletti said, "a constant source of conversation between Grady [Little] and I."

Contemplating October without a Braves division-series flameout, August without Dusty Baker, and a lifetime spent without a friend anywhere near as devoted as Greg Anderson, we reach the brink of the second half with the closer in a hospital bed, his contract expiring, and the particulars of his ballplaying future vague.

Welcome to the jungle.

Dodgers pitching rates among the most intriguing story lines of baseball's summer; the trading deadline, the post-deadline deals, the stretch run in a division in which five teams -- four, at least -- are clumped like frat guys around a pony keg.

Gagne's recovery -- had it been in July, August or September, and assuming effectiveness -- was the trade no one else could have made. As it is, his is the loss few could endure.

Strapped for pitching themselves, the Reds just acquired Eddie Guardado, whose fastball strains to get into the mid-80s, and handed him the ninth inning. The Mets gave the ball to Jose Lima. Again. The Red Sox just sat through another Jason Johnson forfeit, about the same time Matt Clement walked off the mound in the middle of a rehabilitation start. The Cardinals are paying half of Jeff Weaver's salary. The Yankees would sell their pinstripes for Gil Meche, and just might settle for Joel Pineiro.

These are the contenders.

A baseball executive called the pitching market "thinner than thin" this week, meaning the Dodgers might have to make do with what they are. The bullpen has lost a major league-high 17 games, so far turning the most productive offense in the league into a team barely above .500, and the rotation goes dicey after Brad Penny and Derek Lowe.

Colletti began the season sure he would have to add a left fielder, but now finds the greater need in his pitching staff, unless Andre Ethier can do that too. He swung and missed on Jae Seo, hopes Mark Hendrickson gets better, and tries not to long for Duaner Sanchez, who would be his closer today.

Dave Stewart, the former big league pitcher who now represents Chad Billingsley, among others, has his doubts about Hendrickson. "I'm not a big Mark Hendrickson fan," he said on his podcast this week. "Maybe he should go back to basketball with one of those 20-day deals or something. Whenever he's pitching I'm betting on the other guy, even if it's my 6-year-old daughter."

To be fair, Stewart's daughter can rake.

But it leads to an interesting problem. In perhaps two or three weeks, when Brett Tomko comes off the disabled list, the Dodgers will have six starting pitchers. They could send Billingsley to Las Vegas, or they could take a power arm -- Tomko's, say -- and hope that strengthens the bullpen. Lowe, who once saved 42 games for the Red Sox, is too valuable in the rotation.

As it stands, Takashi Saito, the 36-year-old rookie who last closed regularly in 2002, fell from their blue heavens and into the ninth inning. Originally signed to a minor league contract, he is a strikeout pitcher (12.2 per nine innings) on a contact staff (6.3 strikeouts per nine innings) and hasn't blown a save.

Asked if there was anything he especially liked about the Dodgers recently, a major league scout paused for a moment and said, "Saito."

Saito's fastball generally runs in the 89 to 91 range, but hitter reaction suggests deception along with velocity.

"It must be tough to pick up, because they weren't seeing the ball," the scout said.

In some appearances, Saito's fastball has reached 94 or 95, so, according to the scout, "He's got it if he wants it."

The Diamondbacks scored twice against Saito on Wednesday, the first runs he'd given up in 16 appearances since May 15. As much as Dodgers baseball minds have come to appreciate the windfall, there's work to be done on the bullpen, on the pitching staff as a whole, and if the answers aren't coming from the Devil Rays, well, somebody's going to have to get creative.

They are in a division where the late innings are generally covered. Where Gagne fell, Trevor Hoffman, Brian Fuentes and, to a (much) lesser degree, Armando Benitez and Jorge Julio stand. The Padres and Rockies have better bullpen ERAs than the Dodgers, especially crucial in that Dodgers relievers have pitched more innings than any in the division.

Meantime, significant injuries swept Gagne and Yhency Brazoban from the eighth and ninth innings, Danys Baez's ERA at Dodger Stadium is 5.06, and 22-year-old Jonathan Broxton hasn't yet thrown 50 big league innings.

Gagne, presumably, will recover and then carry a baseball into some team's camp next spring, maybe even the Dodgers'. If not, he takes with him the best three-year run of ninth innings ever, with the T-shirts and the posters and, now, the scars to prove it. "Game Over" became their mantra, their fallback, and their expectation.

He has left that legacy, that responsibility for the ninth inning, in play again.

Los Angeles Times Articles