Bullpen troubles rise again for Dodgers

CHICAGO -- When the Los Angeles Dodgers left San Francisco last weekend, they had reason to feel good about their offense, good about their pitching and hopeful about their trajectory. Not only had they held their ground on top of the National League West, but they were heading to play two of the worst teams in the National League.

The only problem is they were going to play those teams in their home stadiums, places that spotlight a team's pitching problems for all the world to see. So, if the loss of Hyun-Jin Ryu seemed survivable for a while, and the shaky bridge between the starters and closer Kenley Jansen seemed to offer decent footing for a bit, they seem less so now.

Giving up 46 runs in six games, as the Dodgers have done these past six games at Coors and Wrigley fields, tends to leave a mark.

"It's definitely not a road trip you're excited about unless you're into shopping," Dodgers reliever Brian Wilson said.

Coors Field is Coors Field, and over the past two games, the wind has been blowing out at Wrigley. It has been a lot of fun for the hitters, who have been peppering the stands with baseballs, but it has been misery for the pitchers. On Saturday, Roberto Hernandez gave the Dodgers only four innings, which is kind of what he has been doing lately, and J.P. Howell and Wilson -- the Dodgers' two primary setup guys -- gave up punishing home runs as the Chicago Cubs rallied for an 8-7 win.

And if you're looking for order to be restored Sunday, don't bank on it. The Dodgers are starting reliever Jamey Wright, who has made one start in seven years, in order to reserve No. 3 starter Dan Haren for the San Francisco Giants on Monday. Sunday will be a "bullpen game," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly announced after Saturday's game, but it was hard to see how that made it any different from any other game this week.

The Dodgers haven't had a starting pitcher go more than five innings since they left San Francisco and, yes, that includes Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw.

If you have a thing for pitching changes, you must be loving this little stretch of Dodgers baseball.

Howell was watching TV in the clubhouse before the game when he noticed the Dodgers have a bullpen ERA that ranks 18th in the majors, "which is unacceptable," he said. Giving up six more runs Saturday didn't help matters any. Arismendy Alcantara hit an 86 mph sinker for a three-run home run to left field off Howell and, an inning later, Chris Coghlan hit a two-run shot off Wilson's 85 mph cutter to right.

The Dodgers aren't concerned about Howell, who has been their most reliable bridge to Jansen all year. They say they're not concerned about Wilson, either, but his 4.86 ERA and the missing 96 mph fastball from last season makes that harder to believe. Wilson never topped 88 mph on Saturday and, frankly, that's what they're getting used to. Batters are hitting .264 against Wilson this season. They hit .178 against him last year.

"This is nothing different today than he's been all year," Mattingly said.

The likeliest solution to Wilson's struggles is to promote rookie Pedro Baez to eighth-inning setup duties, but that's a scary proposition at this time of year, considering Baez went into camp two springs ago as a third baseman. The bullpen certainly looms as the Dodgers' most worrisome area as the postseason approaches, though the back of the rotation would give it a run for its money if Ryu's shoulder doesn't heal fast. Wilson said Saturday's loss was "all my fault," and he said he expects to pitch better -- and with greater velocity -- when the playoffs start.

"I'll go out and do my job and, at the end of the day, you can write what you want, but as far as thinking I'm hurt, that's not the case," Wilson said. "I just wasn't able to execute a pitch."

Eventually, things should settle down. Haren has generally pitched well for the past three weeks, and the Dodgers still think they have a good chance to wrap up the West against the Giants, with Greinke and Kershaw starting the last two games of the series. Pending the result of the Giants' game in San Diego Saturday night, the Dodgers' magic number to clinch the division is six.

So, maybe in a week or so, this stretch of raggedy pitching will all seem like a product of the setting and not an offshoot of some inherent flaws. Then again, you don't know until you know.

"It's that time of year. You're looking to get a win any way you can and, when you win, you feel great no matter how you got it," Mattingly said. "When you lose, it feels like crap no matter how it happens."