During the Dodgers' recent homestand, Manager Joe Torre was asked a simple question: How long could his team afford to pitch the way it had before a roster move would be made?
A smiling Torre leaned over from his seat on the dugout bench and playfully wrapped his Andre the Giant-sized hands around the neck of the inquisitor, drawing laughs from the group.
OK, maybe it was a little early in the season to imply the Dodgers were facing a crisis situation. But three days later, ineffective reliever Russ Ortiz was sent packing, offered Sunday the choice of pitching for their triple-A affiliate in Albuquerque or retiring.
More moves are expected on the Dodgers' upcoming nine-game trip, which starts Tuesday in Cincinnati.
"We can't continue to not get the job done," Torre said.
The backbone of a team that won 95 games and advanced to the National League Championship Series for the second consecutive season last year, the bullpen has been a mess.
The unit led the majors with a 3.14 earned-run average last season. The group had a 5.93 ERA that ranked 28th through Sunday, this despite 52/3 scoreless innings over six appearances from All-Star closer Jonathan Broxton.
Help is on the way.
Left-hander Hong-Chih Kuo could be activated from his latest stint on the 15-day disabled list as soon as Tuesday and power sinkerballer Ronald Belisario could be added to the active roster later this week.
But General Manager Ned Colletti refused to use the absences of Kuo and Belisario to excuse the poor performances on the mound.
Colletti said he was particularly confounded by the lack of command he observed.
"It puts your defense in a tough spot and it puts your offense in a tough spot when you can't throw strikes," Colletti said. "If you throw strikes, they get hits, you get beat that way, that's one thing. If you pitch behind and you walk people, you're inviting adversity.
"It's not acceptable on winning teams. It doesn't happen to winning teams."
Colletti wasn't talking only about the Dodgers relievers.
Dodgers relievers have pitched 41 innings in 12 games, largely because of the inability of the starters to consistently go deep into games. The starters have pitched only 672/3 innings, a figure that ranked 24th in the majors through Sunday.
The rotation showed signs of coming around as the Dodgers won two of three games against the San Francisco Giants over the weekend, with Vicente Padilla tossing seven innings Friday and Clayton Kershaw pitching seven Sunday.
Padilla's first two starts lasted a combined 82/3 innings and Kershaw's 10.
Yet, Torre said he plans to continue carrying 12 pitchers, rather than add another.
An argument could be made that the Dodgers really have only 11 pitchers because Carlos Monasterios is on the roster more for his long-term potential than his present-day ability, reflected by Torre's reluctance to use him in crucial situations.
The Dodgers are keeping him there because Monasterios was obtained in the Rule 5 draft, meaning the Dodgers would have to offer him back to the Philadelphia Phillies before they could demote him.
Spring training wonders Russ Ortiz and Ramon Ortiz, who reported to camp on minor league contracts, failed to replicate their performances from the exhibition season. Russ Ortiz was the first to be let go; Ramon Ortiz could be next.
The lack of pitching depth has had Torre calling the same names over and over again, which is why Ramon Troncoso (2.84 ERA) and Jeff Weaver (5.40 ERA) have pitched in eight of the Dodgers' 12 games. George Sherrill and Ramon Ortiz have made seven appearances each.
Neither Weaver nor Troncoso mind the workload.
"I feel like I'm prepared for this because of the work I did in the off-season," Troncoso said. "If anything, I feel good that they're trusting me in these situations."
Kuo's and Belisario's returns should help the matter, but can do only so much.
Kuo is a survivor of four elbow surgeries and Torre probably will resist the urge to use him on consecutive days. Belisario had an abbreviated spring training because visa issues kept him in his native Venezuela for the first five weeks of camp.
The key figure in the equation might be the left-handed Sherrill, a former All-Star closer who was acquired on the eve of the trade deadline last season.
Sherrill had an 0.65 ERA in 30 appearances for the Dodgers last season but now has an 11.57 ERA. He played a key role in the Dodgers' victory over the Giants on Sunday, forcing Aubrey Huff to pop up with two on and one out in the eighth inning.
"He's going to be all right," Torre said of Sherrill. "But that was certainly a big step for him, especially in the situation he was in."
"I give it about an 81/2," he said. "It's still just a hair off, but I'll definitely take it."
For how he pitched before Sunday he has no answer.