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Shorter outings by starters are exposing some bullpen holes for Dodgers

LOS ANGELES -- As skilled a pitcher as Zack Greinke is -- and, right now, there are few pitchers who do as many things as well as he does -- he is fairly unrepentant about his modern sensibilities. When Greinke gets to the seventh or eighth inning, sometimes earlier, he is not only expecting to be relieved by manager Don Mattingly, he's perfectly willing to give him the ball.

It has been that way for a while with Greinke. So, even after retiring 11 straight batters following a Cameron Maybin home run in the third inning, Greinke said he had no problem exiting after throwing his 97th pitch in the sixth inning of what turned out to be a 3-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves on Wednesday night -- a loss you could pin on more growing pains for a young bullpen.

Greinke is aware of, and fairly obedient to, the 100-pitch barrier that has become practically a rip cord for starting pitchers' outings nowadays.

Where Clayton Kershaw might stomp around on the mound and look away when Mattingly saunters out, Greinke is on board with the way the game is played in 2015. Maybe that's because Kershaw grew up in Nolan Ryan's shadow down in Texas?

"You've been pitching to it so long, you get used to it and your body's used to it," Greinke said. "By the time they normally get you, you build up a tolerance to going a certain distance."

Overall, the Los Angeles Dodgers have strong pitching. Their 3.25 ERA is third in the major leagues. Even as Kershaw has endured two frustrating and surprisingly mediocre months and injuries have ravaged the back of the rotation, the Dodgers' starters have been perfectly fine, largely thanks to Greinke. Only three National League rotations have a better ERA than the Dodgers' starting five (3.60). Greinke's 1.48 ERA is second to A.J. Burnett's 1.37 for the major league lead.

They're just not making it easy on their bullpen. The Dodgers' rotation ranks smack in the middle when it comes to innings, No. 15 out of 30 teams. Perhaps that is because the new analytically minded front office is playing to the percentages, and studies increasingly show that starters' effectiveness declines precipitously the third and fourth times a lineup returns at bat.

But the lack of deep outings -- Greinke has yet to get through eight innings in 10 starts -- has at times exposed the Dodgers' increasingly susceptible bullpen. Lately, rookies Yimi Garcia and Adam Liberatore haven't been as automatic as they were earlier and Chris Hatcher has never really gotten into a consistent groove. Hatcher started the fire Liberatore couldn't quench when Atlanta scored the two runs that proved to be the difference in the eighth inning. Part of the problem was Greinke left Mattingly three innings to cover, something that's becoming harder and harder to do.

Greinke has averaged 6 2/3 innings this season in his 10 starts, which is nothing to be ashamed of. It's just that, in an ideal world, your No. 1 starter -- which Greinke has become while Kershaw gets his season on track -- would give your bullpen a little more down time. Last season, Kershaw's starts averaged 7 1/3 innings, a two-batter difference that can be crucial late in games.

"I try not to think about it, because any time you start thinking about changing the way you're pitching to go deeper or anything it always backfires," Greinke said.

It would be foolish of the Dodgers to ask Greinke to tinker with his approach. Once Kershaw gets rolling, none of this might matter in a month or so. But right now, getting the seventh and eighth innings covered so the Dodgers can hand the ball to closer Kenley Jansen is a bit more of an issue than it was a few weeks ago.