HOUSTON — The Dodgers were nearly out of a period that Manager Grady Little had likened to a storm when another threatening cloud appeared on the horizon.
The exact situation of the gradually recovering pitching unit won't be known until this morning, when Derek Lowe undergoes an MRI exam on the groin he strained in the Dodgers' 2-1 loss to the Houston Astros on Wednesday night at Minute Maid Park.
The strain forced Lowe out of the game a batter into the fifth inning and caused him to slam his glove when he descended into the dugout.
Lowe, who said he had never previously left a game because of an injury, said he had "absolutely no idea" about the strain's severity or how long he would be out, if at all.
Said Little: "If you lose a pitcher like this for any period of time, it's a big blow. You've got to hope it's not serious."
The potential calamity struck on a day when the Dodgers seemed to be on the verge of regaining a pair of their key pitchers, as Takashi Saito pitched a pain-free bullpen session and Randy Wolf made a rehabilitation start in San Bernardino.
"You don't want to be the guy who puts the team behind the eight ball," Lowe said.
Particularly because of how he got himself into this predicament.
Lowe was first hurt Sunday when warming up for a relief appearance that was necessitated by the low number of useable arms in the bullpen.
"I don't think I put ample time into stretching," Lowe said.
Lowe said that when he and bullpen coach Dan Warthen debated whether he should pitch that day, he persisted on doing so.
Lowe said he felt something in his groin while warming up Wednesday, but he pitched well for the first four innings, giving up one run and three hits. The lone run came on a third-inning home run by Eric Munson.
A would-be single to right field by Lowe in the top of the fifth pushed him closer to his eventual departure, as he further strained the muscle in a futile attempt to prevent a 9-3 groundout.
"I'm slow, but I didn't have that extra gear running to first base," he said.
Asked if that was the final straw, Lowe responded, "No, it was a straw, it was an embarrassing straw. I know I'm not fast, but I was trying like heck to kick it into -- I don't even want to say second gear -- one-and-a-half gear."
Lowe threw three pitches to Jason Lane in the bottom half of the inning, the third of which was singled, and left the game. He said he was feeling a sharp pain every time his landing foot hit the ground.
Jeff Kent, who was seven for 11 in the three-game series, hit a towering home run to left field in the seventh inning to tie the game, 1-1. But Carlos Lee responded with a solo blast that same inning to put the Astros back ahead.
The Dodgers, who had only six hits in a 7-4 loss Tuesday, had six hits again Wednesday.
Pitching coach Rick Honeycutt sighed when asked about the potential setback to the pitching staff but noted the team would be in worse shape if Chad Billingsley didn't throw a complete game Monday and if since-demoted Eric Stults couldn't pitch 5 1/3 innings in a spot start Sunday.
Reliever Joe Beimel said that because the bullpen had been used rather sparingly over the last two days, it was ready to shoulder an extra load again if necessary. Beimel pitched an inning Wednesday but hadn't been in the previous three games.
"I was feeling kind of rusty," he said.