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BILL PLASCHKE

Dodgers' bullpen sees a role reversal

Jonathan Broxton sets up the save for George Sherrill in victory over Cubs.

August 23, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

Eighth inning, Dodgers leading Chicago Cubs by two swings, phone rings in the Dodgers' bullpen for their setup reliever.

Hello? Is turmoil home?

"I started taking my stuff off," George Sherrill said, "then somebody said, 'It's Brox,' and I'm like, 'Ohh.' "

Ohh.

So went the three-letter theme to the two-run Dodgers victory over the Cubs on Saturday, a 2-0 decision that featured a bullpen shake-up that could not have been more pronounced if the pen were actually inhabited by a bull.

Jonathan Broxton, the struggling All-Star closer, was used as a setup man.

George Sherrill, the hot All-Star setup man, was used as a closer.

Roles were reversed, egos were tested, questions were raised, long-term implications were considered.

It looked unusual. It felt unsettled.

Fans gave Broxton a ninth-inning standing ovation in the eighth. Teammates gave Sherrill an eighth-inning embrace in the ninth.

On a team fighting for pitching stability at the start of a stretch run, it seemed just plain wacky.

But it worked. And in the end, the real save went to neither pitcher, but to Joe Torre, the old-fashioned manager unafraid to make a new-age decision.

"I don't think I've ever done that before," Torre admitted later in his office. "But it's all about winning."

Even if winning means temporarily changing the two most defined pitching roles on a first-place team on the 22nd day of August?

Only a manager with Torre's credentials could have tried to sell this.

Only a team that has total belief in that manager would have bought it.

At least, publicly, for now, they're buying it.

While Broxton wore a weary grimace afterward, he said he understood.

"We won, so it didn't matter," he said.

While Sherrill wore a shocked stare, he said he could also adjust.

"You try not to think about anything, you just go out there and pitch," he said.

Meanwhile, the rest of the guys were busy dressing to rap music and relaxing after another day of using every limb to stave off the charge from Colorado and San Francisco.

A journeyman knuckleballer named Charlie Haeger gave up three hits in seven innings against mindless Cubs hackers.

Matt Kemp hit a fly bomb that landed in a walkway behind the left-field bullpen, Casey Blake poked another homer into the left-field stands.

Sherrill and Broxton finished it up.

I mean, Broxton and Sherrill.

"Today was the team concept that Joe has created around here," pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said. "This is why Torre was brought here, this is what he does."

Torre said the change was not permanent, nor based on recent performance, but simply a matter of matchups.

"We're not as concerned about who gets the stat as much as the only stat that is important is that 'W' on the left-hand side," Torre said.

After Haeger started the eighth inning by walking Sam Fuld, the heart of the Cubs' order was due up, and a right-hander was needed.

Milton Bradley, a switch-hitter, hits nearly 100 points worse against righties, while Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez hit right-handed.

Torre said Broxton was a better bet in that situation, so he was brought into the game, thrilling all those baseball thinkers who believe that a closer should pitch the most important inning of the game, not necessarily the last inning of the game.

"After the game, Joe came up to me and said it was an eighth-inning save," Broxton said. "I believe him."

Despite struggling with a 4.66 ERA since July 1, Broxton struck out two and survived the inning.

This left the ninth for Sherrill, who still has not given up a run in 11 appearances here after striking out two and stranding two runners to end the game for his first official Dodgers save.

"I was a little surprised," Sherrill said.

So how do they act now? What happens next?

More than any other player, relief pitchers hunger for defined roles. They set their minds to it. They base their routines on it.

This is particularly true for relatively inexperienced relievers such as Broxton and Sherrill, and even though Torre said the switch was temporary, you know they are both thinking about it this very minute.

Was this really just about matchups, or was this a possible test for the rest of the season? If Broxton is as tired as he seems -- he ranks second among National League closers in innings pitched -- could this be the first step in a full-time switch?

Torre was correct in making the move Saturday, and any other time that it makes sense.

But is he correct in his assumption that Broxton and Sherrill can handle the uncertainty?

If they can't, then he has to pick a guy and stick with him, because even the soundest of baseball strategy cannot overcome the frailty of human nature.

"I don't think it will be an issue," Torre said. "If somebody gets offended by pitching to the 3-4-5 hitters in the eighth inning, they're not the person I think they are."

Who are Jonathan Broxton and George Sherrill?

We're about to find out.

--

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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