LOS ANGELES -- Joe Torre said it so many times during the Dodgers' nine-game winning streak that it began to sound like a recorded message. The key to the team's sudden run of success, as the mantra went, was starting pitching.
On Wednesday night, for the first time in recent memory, the Dodgers didn't get good starting pitching, and it resulted in a 10-5 loss to the San Diego Padres before 40,138 at Dodger Stadium.
Veteran right-hander Ramon Ortiz was making only his second major league start since 2007 but also his second in six days. The first one also had been against the Padres, on Friday night at Petco Park. It had been mediocre at best, although it was good enough to keep the Dodgers in a game they eventually won. This time, though, Ortiz left the Dodgers in a hole they couldn't overcome.
The Dodgers were trying to win 10 games in a row for the first time since July 28-Aug. 8, 2006, when they put together an 11-game winning streak that eventually propelled them to a playoff spot. That also was the last time they had won as many as nine consecutive games, although they did have an eight-game winning streak early last year.
During this winning streak, the Dodgers' starting rotation was a combined 8-0 with a 2.33 ERA. Remove the game Ortiz started -- he was the only one who didn't get a win -- and that ERA drops to 2.12.
In a rotation where Hiroki Kuroda, Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley and rookie John Ely suddenly are all pitching superbly, Ortiz essentially is holding down the fifth spot until Vicente Padilla comes off the disabled list. But with Padilla not expected back until mid-June at the earliest, the question now becomes whether the Dodgers can afford to stick with Ortiz for that long. Through two starts, Ortiz has been torched for eight runs and 12 hits in 7 1/3 innings.
With an off day Monday before the start of a six-game trip Tuesday night in Chicago, the Dodgers can get by without a fifth starter until May 30 at Colorado. Assuming they take advantage of that luxury, that solves the problem in the short term. But eventually, they will need another starter, and if it isn't going to be Ortiz, well, who else do the Dodgers have?
There is knuckleballer Charlie Haeger, who is on the 15-day disabled list with what is officially listed as plantar fasciitis, although that move was made primarily because the Dodgers needed a roster spot. Haeger becomes eligible for activation early next week. But Haeger is also the guy who started the last game before the winning streak began, failing to record an out in that May 8 game against Colorado.
In five starts for the Dodgers this season, Haeger is 0-4 with a 10.31 ERA.
So if it isn't Haeger, the next likely candidate is rookie Carlos Monasterios, who turned in three shutout innings and threw 55 pitches Wednesday night after Ortiz failed to get out of the fourth. But before that, Monasterios hadn't pitched in a game in eight days, because with the rest of the bullpen having finally settled into somewhat-defined roles, all that was left for the comparatively inexperienced Monasterios was long relief -- something that isn't often needed in the midst of a nine-game winning streak.
Torre's problem with Monasterios is that while he pitched fairly well in his only start of the season on May 1 against Pittsburgh, he lasted only four innings, throwing 73 pitches in the process.
The only other option, barring a trade or free-agent signing, would be the minor league system. But none of the current starters at Triple-A Albuquerque, including prospects James McDonald, Scott Elbert and Josh Lindblom, has pitched especially well this season.
Whatever the solution, the problem isn't going away any time soon. Following the off day Monday, the Dodgers won't have another one for 17 days, until June 10. It would be extremely optimistic to think Padilla could return by then. If he doesn't, the Dodgers will need a fifth starter three times between the two off days.
Whomever Torre and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt end up choosing to fill that spot, they will do it with their breath held and their fingers crossed.
A note on Thursday's starters: Kershaw (3-2, 3.55) has given up one run over 15 innings in his past two starts, including limiting the Padres to a run and three hits over seven dazzling innings Saturday at Petco Park. Padres right-hander Kevin Correia (4-3, 4.35), who also opposed Kershaw on Saturday, has a ghastly 6.33 ERA in four career starts at Dodger Stadium. After this game, the fifth in seven days between the Dodgers and Padres, the two teams won't see each other again until July 27-29 at Petco Park.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.