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Dodgers need bullpen roles to settle

PHOENIX -- It would be a bit simplistic to say the Los Angeles Dodgers' bullpen has been bad through the first four games.

Some of the younger pitchers, particularly Yimi Garcia, have been emerging as reliable producers of outs, increasingly high-leverage ones, and some of the veterans, particularly Joel Peralta, have been as steady as you would hope they would be.

But absent closer Kenley Jansen and veteran setup man Brandon League, who are out with injuries, it's not too soon to say this group is in search of an identity. Roles are in flux and the sooner they become concrete, or at least semi-rigid, the sooner the Dodgers will feel like they have all the components to get where they hope they're heading.

The Dodgers' bullpen has a 2.70 ERA -- perfectly middle-of-the-pack -- but it also has been responsible for both of the team's losses, which in a way, is all you need to know about it.

Friday night, one of the trusted veteran relievers, J.P. Howell, got himself in a mess of trouble in the 10th inning when he walked light-hitting pinch hitter Cliff Pennington, threw a wild pitch and allowed Pennington to steal third base without a throw. It was about then that the Dodgers invited Yasiel Puig to move from right field to third base as part of their desperation, five-man infield.

“Not the ideal sitch,” said Howell, who criticized himself for being too fine to Pennington.

Said Dodgers manager Don Mattingly: “Well, obviously, I didn't want them to hit it to [Puig].”

They didn't. Puig emerged unscathed, but the Dodgers didn't. Ender Inciarte ripped a game-winning single past Adrian Gonzalez to give Arizona the 4-3 win. And, of course, Puig had nothing to do with this loss, aside from the fact that he continues to press in his at-bats. He finally ripped a single in the 10th inning, but Mattingly said after the game he's fairly sure Puig is simply “trying too hard to get a hit.” Puig is 2-for-17 with six strikeouts.

The bullpen could be the more worrisome issue until Jansen gets back on a mound and slots everybody else an inning earlier. Howell, the Dodgers' left-handed setup man, and Chris Hatcher, the interim closer, are the only two Dodgers pitchers with losses on their records.

If trends continue, you wonder whether younger pitchers such as Garcia and Paco Rodriguez could move into the higher-pressure situations. Garcia was the buzz of camp this spring and he tidied up the seventh and eighth innings nicely Friday, striking out four of the seven batters he faced, touching 94 mph.

“That's a pretty good indicator of what we think of him that we used him right there,” Mattingly said.

Mattingly said he and the coaches started picking up on Garcia's confidence last September. If that confidence continues to grow, Garcia's in himself and the Dodgers' in Garcia, he might be worth the gamble in even higher-pressure spots.