LOS ANGELES -- Suddenly, the Los Angeles Dodgers' feel-good story of the year isn't feeling so good anymore. Suddenly, rookie right-hander John Ely is pitching the way you would expect a rookie right-hander to pitch.
And in the wake of the Dodgers' latest humiliation at the hands of their big brothers from down the freeway, a 4-2 loss to the Los Angeles Angels before 52,806 on Saturday night at Dodger Stadium, perhaps there is a lesson in that.
Regardless of how well Ely has pitched over the past month or so, the thought of the veteran-laden Dodgers relying on him to dominate every time he takes the mound seems a little much at this point -- especially with Ely having turned in mediocre and almost identical pitching lines (five innings, four earned runs) in his past two starts.
But in the silver-lining department, at least now the Dodgers can see how the kid deals with adversity for the first time.
"No question," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "This is where we have no history, so we're going to find out."
Judging by his postgame comments, Ely at least knows the right things to say when he is struggling. But the Dodgers will have to wait a few more days to see if he knows how to get himself out of what he has suddenly gotten himself into.
"The beauty of baseball is that tomorrow is another day, and I will get another start coming up in a few days," Ely said.
Not that Boston's Fenway Park, where Ely will make his next start either Friday or Saturday, is all that conducive to visiting rookie pitchers trying to right themselves. But Ely has to start somewhere, right?
From the moment he arrived in the majors, an arrival that was months if not a year ahead of schedule, Ely has been characterized by a relentless attacking of the strike zone and an admirable habit of getting ahead early in counts, a tactic he uses to offset the fact that he doesn't have the ability to blow people away. But in his past two outings, his command hasn't been sufficient to allow him to get away with being so aggressive.
On the one hand, Ely has fallen behind in counts and thrown far more pitches far earlier in games than he did previously. On Sunday against the Atlanta Braves, in a game the Dodgers eventually won in 11 innings, Ely threw 93 pitches in five innings. Against the Angels, he threw 85 in five. Fifty-one of those 85 came in the fourth and fifth innings, when the Angels scored all four of their runs.
"In the fourth and fifth innings, I fell behind way more than I needed to," Ely said. "I can't be doing that, especially against a lineup like theirs."
On the other hand, when Ely has thrown strikes, he has been hit hard. In those 10 innings of his past two starts, Ely has given up 15 hits -- eight of them for extra bases and three of them home runs. The result is that Ely has given up the same number of runs (eight) over his past two starts that he gave up over his previous six starts combined.
"He has just been a little off," Torre said. "For him to be successful, he has to have his control. He is either on the edge or off the edge. He can't challenge people down the middle because he doesn't have overpowering stuff. He had some bad counts tonight, some 2-0, some 2-1, some 3-1, and it's a little tough to pitch that way, especially against a ballclub that likes to move runners."
For better or worse, though, Ely apparently is staying in the rotation, even with Vicente Padilla tentatively due to return sometime during next weekend's three-game series against the Boston Red Sox. Torre reiterated after the game that fellow rookie Carlos Monasterios, who will make his final start Sunday against the Angels, is the guy who will go to the bullpen to make room for Padilla.
"I think [Ely] has shown us enough in the way he goes about his business," Torre said. "Whereas Ely has been pitching as a starter all year, even though some of it was at the minor league level, Monasterios has worked out of the bullpen for us. But we're trying to win ballgames whichever way we can do it, and if there comes a time when we need to make a change, we will do it at that time."
Perhaps the Dodgers (36-26) -- who fell into second place in the National League West and now trail division-leading San Diego by one game -- have nothing to worry about with Ely. Perhaps the past two starts are nothing more than a momentary plot twist in Ely's fairy-tale season. Perhaps when he takes the mound at Fenway, he will go right back to that pinpoint command that got everyone's attention so quickly.
Then again, maybe this is just the downside of the fact the Dodgers have had to rely so heavily on an untested rookie in their starting rotation. Maybe it was always bound to eventually catch up with them.
With the Dodgers trailing by two runs and the first two batters having reached in the bottom of the seventh, switch-hitting leadoff man Rafael Furcal, who began the day with a .308 average and .371 on-base percentage from the left side, stepped into the box against Angels right-hander Kevin Jepsen.
And for some reason, Furcal tried to sacrifice -- but he fouled it off. And then, for some reason, Furcal tried to sacrifice again. This time, he popped the ball into the air in foul territory, where Angels third baseman Maicer Izturis easily grabbed it for the out. The play basically sucked the life out of a once-promising inning that would end with the Dodgers leaving the bases loaded and failing to score.
Torre later said, and Furcal confirmed, that the bunt sign was on for the first pitch but was then taken off for the second pitch. Furcal didn't miss the sign but opted to bunt on his own anyway, and he later said he wasn't trying to bunt for a hit.
"I felt I could put a good bunt down and move the runners," Furcal said. "But it's tough to bunt off a guy who throws 96 [mph]. It was just a bad play, and it was my fault."
By the numbers
15 -- consecutive hitless at-bats for Kemp, who has struck out five times during that stretch and may never learn to lay off the breaking ball down and away. Kemp made the final out in four different innings Saturday night, each time with at least one runner on base, and he wound up stranding six runners in all, three of them in scoring position. Kemp struck out to end the first with a man on first and to end the fifth with a man on third, both times on low, outside breaking balls. He then grounded into a force on the first pitch from Jepsen to leave the bases loaded in the seventh.
The only thing standing between the Dodgers and a three-game sweep at the hands of their crosstown rivals is Monasterios (3-0, 2.27), who has given up only 14 hits in 20 innings as a starter. Right-hander Jered Weaver (5-3, 3.20), who in three career starts at Dodger Stadium has given up one earned run in 16 1/3 innings, will go for the Angels.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.