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Too close for comfort

Dodgers lose, 1-0, when Giants scratch out a run in 11th, and lead over Arizona is cut to 2 1/2 . Losing pitcher Saito may reclaim closer role.

September 22, 2008|Dylan Hernandez | Times Staff Writer

Dodgers Manager Joe Torre made his preference clear: He wants Takashi Saito to be his closer again.

Saito didn't seem as sure.

"I haven't heard that from Joe," Saito said, "but if he tells me to go out there, I'll go out there."

Saito finds himself in a situation that pitching coach Rick Honeycutt likened to the one he faced coming out of spring training, when he was recovering from a strained calf muscle and had to rush his way back into form.

Only this isn't spring training.

Six games are left in the regular season. The Dodgers hold a 2 1/2 -game lead over the Arizona Diamondbacks in the NL West. The magic number to clinch the division title remains five, meaning they are unlikely to secure a place in the postseason during the three-game home series against the San Diego Padres that begins Tuesday.

Back from a two-month stint on the disabled list because of a sprained elbow ligament, Saito has repeated one phrase over and over in the last week: "In this situation, I can't . . . "

He said he can't shrug off losing a game in the 11th inning, as he did Sunday when he gave up three hits and the only run in the Dodgers' 1-0 loss to the San Francisco Giants.

He said he can't celebrate earning a win, as he did the previous night when he notched his first victory in almost four months by tossing a scoreless seventh inning.

He said he can't complain about a close call at first base, such as the one that went against the Dodgers in the 11th inning Sunday and fueled the Giants' winning rally, or be satisfied that his control was marginally better than it was last time he pitched.

Saito (4-4) said he knows that he has to pitch well and that he has to pitch well immediately. And the Dodgers have to win games.

"I'll work myself to death over the last six games to do what I can," said Saito, who has pitched four times since being activated from the 60-day disabled list and has been charged with two runs in 3 2/3 innings.

Saito acknowledged that he's venturing into the unknown. Though he was often hurt over his 14-year career with the Yokohama BayStars in Japan, he said he'd never had to come back from an injury that sidelined him for so long without making a rehabilitation assignment in the minors. (When Saito was activated Sept. 13, the minor league season was already over.)

Still, Torre said he has every intention of moving Saito back into the closer's role.

Replacement Jonathan Broxton hasn't given up an earned run in his last 11 1/3 innings, but Torre said Saito is "more emotionally equipped for that [role] because he's done it."

Torre acknowledged he had to use Saito in consecutive games to test his durability but said he didn't think he had compromised the Dodgers' immediate needs for future ones by inserting him into the games Saturday and Sunday. Honeycutt expressed similar sentiments, noting that Saito's velocity was back to normal levels and that he wasn't far from peak form.

Again, Saito seemed less sure.

He delivered 26 pitches and gave up three hits Sunday in two-thirds of an inning. Included was a single to left by Rich Aurilia that drove in pitcher Brad Hennessey, who had pinch-run for Pablo Sandoval -- and, crucially, stole second moments before Eugenio Velez hit a slow ground ball to shortstop that might have resulted in an inning-ending forceout had Hennessey still been at first. Instead, Velez beat Chin-lung Hu's throw to first -- the Dodgers disputed umpire Bob Davidson's call -- for a single that moved Hennessey to third. Aurilia's winning hit followed.

Saito agreed that he was unlucky on Velez's infield hit, but also said he hasn't fully recovered his timing and balance.

"You can't go out there with only your spirit," Saito said. "You also can't go out there with only technique. You have to put the two together and, in addition to that, take care of your body. Balancing everything is difficult."

--

dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

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