Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw has played a valuable role in keeping the…
Reporting from Pittsburgh — Only two of the players in their lineup present real threats. Their starting shortstop and third baseman are on the disabled list. So are their two All-Star relievers. Another reliever never reported to camp.
But the Dodgers, who were rained out in their series finale against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Thursday night, returned to Los Angeles a manageable 3½ games behind the first-place San Francisco Giants in the National League West.
"It could be worse, that's for sure," Manager Don Mattingly said.
The reason it isn't worse is starting pitching.
Their starters have a 3.74 earned-run average, which is fifth-best among NL rotations, behind the Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies, San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals.
Of their five starters, four have ERAs under four: Clayton Kershaw (3.12), Hiroki Kuroda (3.21), Chad Billingsley (3.91) and Jon Garland (3.61).
Ted Lilly, who signed a three-year, $33-million contract over the winter, has a 4.67 ERA but has won three of his last four decisions.
The Dodgers are 16-8 when they get a quality start from their pitcher — six or more innings with three or fewer earned runs allowed.
"When you get that every day, your team knows that every time you go out there, you're in the game," Mattingly said. "That's a good feeling for the team. You're not getting past Kersh and Bills and going, 'We have three days to get back to those guys.' You can put a run together with this type of starting pitching."
The starters have at times masked the Dodgers' deficiencies, as was the case Wednesday night, when Kuroda pitched seven shutout innings to lift the Dodgers to a 2-0 victory.
The seventh inning Kuroda pitched was crucial, as the Dodgers were short on quality arms out of the bullpen.
Setup man Hong-Chih Kuo, who posted an all-time franchise record 1.20 ERA last season, was placed on the disabled list earlier in the day because of an anxiety disorder. Kuo joined Jonathan Broxton, who had already been out for nearly a week because of elbow problems.
"If those two were healthy, things would be a lot easier," said Vicente Padilla, a longtime starter who has taken Broxton's place.
Blake Hawksworth strained a groin muscle and was unavailable.
Ronald Belisario couldn't secure a visa to the United States and never made it out of his native Venezuela.
Second-year right-hander Kenley Jansen has been inconsistent and Lance Cormier has been ineffective to the point where Mattingly has used him only in blowouts.
Kuroda's latest gem also safeguarded against the Dodgers' offensive shortcomings.
They have been held to four or fewer runs in 26 times and two or fewer 16 times. They have played 38 games.
Outside of Andre Ethier, who has reached base in his each of his last 36 games, and Matt Kemp, who leads the team with seven home runs, the Dodgers don't have much.
"We have to start hitting," Kemp said.
Though James Loney has started to emerge from a slump that dates back to the All-Star break last year, he hasn't hit with any power. Loney's last extra-base hit was April 6.
Free-agent addition Juan Uribe has hit three home runs and driven in 18 runs, but his average has hovered around .200 for most of the season. That wasn't entirely unexpected — Uribe, who was signed to a three-year, $21-million deal in the off-season, started the year with a career on-base percentage of .300.
Furthermore, the Dodgers remain in search of an answer in left field. They have cycled through a variety of candidates, including Marcus Thames (.222 average, hurt), Tony Gwynn Jr. (.234), Jay Gibbons (.167, vision problems) and Xavier Paul (.273, now with the Pirates). Recently, they have turned to minor league home run sensation Jerry Sands, who is hitting .212.
Whenever asked about his team's failure to hit, Manager Don Mattingly has almost always pointed to the absences of Rafael Furcal and Casey Blake, who are on the disabled list.
Furcal, the Dodgers' shortstop and leadoff hitter, has been out since April 12 with a broken thumb.
Blake, who is sidelined for the second time this season, has hit .321 in the 14 games he has played.
Jamey Carroll has hit well as Furcal's stand-in atop the lineup — he has a season average of .308 — but said the Dodgers are missing their regular leadoff batter.
"My job is to hold the fort down until somebody comes back," Carroll said. "He's a switch hitter that steals some bases. That's very important to who were are. We need him back in the lineup."
Everything considered, Mattingly is optimistic.
"We're in it," he said. "I think it's encouraging."