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Dodgers bullpen helps team avert disaster

CHICAGO -- The Los Angeles Dodgers might not ever know how close they came to their first true crisis of 2015.

At the start of their most grueling road trip of the season and in one of their few series against a winning team, the Dodgers got off to an ominous start. They lost Clayton Kershaw’s start and they lost Zack Greinke’s start. That in itself is a bit disturbing considering it rarely happens, but there was more. The offense was so inept that reporters surrounded president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman on the dugout bench before Wednesday’s game to find out what he was going to do about it.

And the mindset of the team right about then?

“Bad,” reliever J.P. Howell said, “any time you lose with those guys. That’s our best team when he’s on the mound -- Clayton or Greinke.”

The Dodgers didn’t exactly send their best teams to the old Wrigley Field playing surface Wednesday and Thursday. They were lining up behind their fourth and fifth starters, Mike Bolsinger and Carlos Frias. For entirely different reasons, both pitchers could be considered fringe major-leaguers. Each of those guys had begun to hit a wobbly stretch in their season and, unbeknownst to many, Frias was battling a nasty bout with the flu. On Thursday, the Dodgers sent out a rag-tag lineup missing five regulars against the Chicago Cubs and their ace, Jon Lester.

If ever there was an argument for the reverse-lock theory, this was it. The Dodgers won both games, including Thursday’s 4-0 shutout of the Cubs.

Bolsinger and Frias kept the wheels from falling off while they were in the game, which wasn’t long, the Dodgers scored just enough to win and their bullpen combined to pitch 8 1/3 scoreless innings over the two games. It was a good formula for disaster aversion or, perhaps, a reminder that the young Cubs aren’t quite ready to put away reeling teams.

We probably won’t know for a few days whether the Dodgers truly have emerged from their six-week-long hitting funk. For the record, Friedman said he plans on doing nothing about the offense, that he views the “mini-funk,” in his words, as part of the cycles of a baseball season.

We know this: The Dodgers chased Lester after just four innings Thursday. It was his shortest outing of the season. And veteran shortstop Jimmy Rollins has had a miserable season at the plate, working hard to keep his batting average above .200, but he still knows how to read a scouting report and he still knows how to impact a game.

Rollins bunted for a single off Lester in the first inning and, after Lester walked Justin Turner, took off for third base on a steal attempt. Lester is hesitant to throw to bases. Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said he thought Rollins’ dashes around the bases “unnerved Lester a little bit.” Lester certainly looked a bit rattled, walking four batters in two innings, giving up four hits and getting in umpire Andy Fletcher’s face.

What really stabilized this rocky stretch for the Dodgers was a bullpen that has been both maligned and praised at times this season, but mostly has been in flux. The Dodgers’ new front office has kept young pitchers walking in and out of the clubhouse doors on a regular basis, with Howell, the veteran lefty, the only bedrock in the group. Kenley Jansen has been lights-out dominant, but he missed more than a month recovering from foot surgery. Joel Peralta, another aging veteran with a bankable track record, missed a big chunk of season before returning Tuesday and blowing the game in the 10th inning. He bounced back and pitched scoreless outings the next two days.

Help, too, is on the way. Brandon League, Pedro Baez and Paco Rodriguez are expected to be activated in the coming days, which will add to the flux, but perhaps also add to the group’s effectiveness.

The Dodgers view Howell and Peralta as important members of the bullpen group because they help the younger pitchers learn to deal with the ups and downs of the game’s most hit-or-miss profession, one in which one bad pitch can leave a bad taste -- and a serious dent on the ERA -- for days, if not weeks.

“Whenever I do bad or good, I try to be the same,” Howell said. “Even when you do good, you’ve got to move on. Sometimes, when you’re young, you dwell on both.”