Encouraging signs in Dodgers' bullpen

CHICAGO -- An argument can be made that the Los Angeles Dodgers' bullpen hasn't been as bad this season as the raw numbers would suggest. But the bottom of the eighth inning of Saturday's game, a 10-8 loss to the Chicago Cubs before 41,161 at Wrigley Field, probably wouldn't have been the best time to make that argument.

That was when Matt Guerrier, the veteran reliever who to that point hadn't given up a run of his own in 11 2/3 innings in his first season with the Dodgers, suddenly gave up five of them, turning a game that had seemed reasonably in hand into a tough-to-swallow defeat.

"I just made a lot of mistakes," Guerrier said. "It's tough to lose after battling back [from a 5-1 deficit] and getting ahead [8-5]. I have to hold the lead right there."

This is the same Guerrier who had retired the Cubs in order, with relative ease, in the seventh inning; the same Guerrier who had played the hero with two outstanding innings to set the table for Matt Kemp's walkoff heroics on Thursday against the Atlanta Braves; and the same Guerrier who was asked to pitch two full innings for the third time in his first 10 appearances this season, something he did just nine times in 74 appearances for the Minnesota Twins last year.

At least Guerrier was rescued from that. This time, he didn't make it all the way to two innings, as manager Don Mattingly finally lifted him after 1 2/3 and a season-high 35 pitches when that final out of the eighth just never came.

"I probably shouldn't have brought Guerrier back out," Mattingly said. "I should have gone with [Blake] Hawksworth there. Looking back, it's easy [to second-guess], but [Guerrier] had only thrown seven pitches, and he threw 25 the other day with a day off [in between]."

In other words, Guerrier isn't the problem. And although the collective ERA of the Dodgers' bullpen is now a ghastly 5.94, maybe the rest of the relievers aren't really the problem anymore, either. There are a million possible excuses for everything that goes wrong on a baseball field, but the fact All-Star setup man Hong-Chih Kuo is on the disabled list is clearly a factor here.

Had Kuo been healthy, Guerrier would have pitched only the seventh, and Kuo would have pitched the eighth.

"Sure," Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said.

Then again, if Kuo had been healthy all year, he wouldn't have walked an uncharacteristic four batters in 2 2/3 innings before it was determined he had a lower-back strain that was throwing his mechanics out of whack.

The point here is that it isn't time to panic with the Dodgers' bullpen, and that in fact, the recent signs have been encouraging. Oft-criticized closer Jonathan Broxton hasn't exactly been lights out, as his 5.19 ERA will attest, but he still hasn't officially blown a save in five chances. Kuo, who is set to begin a rehabilitation assignment at Class A Rancho Cucamonga on Monday, is expected back possibly by Friday, in theory without the wildness.

Kenley Jansen, last year's rookie sensation who was awful through his first eight appearances, seemed to find himself again when he retired all five batters he faced, striking out four of them, in the ho-hum late innings of a lopsided win over the Cubs on Friday. Mike MacDougal, despite walking two of his first three batters in an otherwise scoreless appearance on Saturday, has been rock-solid all year. Hawksworth has been decent as well despite Jeff Baker hitting his first pitch Saturday for a game-winning, two-run double after Mattingly finally went to get Guerrier (1-1).

And in what might be the most encouraging sign of all, at least until Kuo comes back, Vicente Padilla, who was activated from the disabled list Friday, made his season debut for the Dodgers on Saturday. For a team that has struggled all year -- both its starters and relievers -- to deliver that so-called "shutdown" inning right after staging a big offensive rally, Padilla responded to the Dodgers' three-run sixth with a one-two-three bottom half on two ground balls and a strikeout against the top of the Cubs' order.

Mattingly said Padilla might have gone a second inning if it hadn't been his first appearance since surgery on Feb. 24. That is actually doubtful given that the pitcher's spot in the order came up in the seventh, but Mattingly's point still wasn't lost.

The Dodgers (11-11) will need a roster spot when Kuo comes off the DL, and the fact Lance Cormier has given up at least two runs in four of his five appearances might not bode well for the veteran right-hander. But while this Dodgers bullpen has struggled as a group, there is reason to believe it is getting better.

Not that it's any consolation to Guerrier right now.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.