Los Angeles Dodgers beginning to find some bullpen solutions

The Dodgers have struggled to find pitchers who can bridge the gap between their starters and closer Kenley Jansen. AP Photo/John Minchillo

CINCINNATI -- Luis Avilan was a starting pitcher as a teenager, but by the time he turned 20 at Class A Rome, the Atlanta Braves organization had decided to scrap that plan. They put the hard-throwing left-hander in the bullpen full time, and a couple of years later, he was in the big leagues.

Unlike some pitchers who pine for a return to the starting rotation, Avilan said he bid it good riddance a long time ago.

"That's the part I love about being a reliever, coming in with men on base in tough situations," Avilan said. "When I was a starter, I used to get in trouble in the first couple of innings because it was so boring."

The Los Angeles Dodgers could use a couple more adrenaline junkies like Avilan. For nearly three months, but most pointedly in the past week, the Dodgers' bullpen has been sapping team morale by doling out painful, late-inning losses. But the past two days, Avilan struck out Cincinnati Reds outfielder Jay Bruce -- once with a well-thrown curveball, once with a 94 mph fastball -- to preserve much-needed victories.

The Dodgers beat the Reds 7-4 Wednesday night with 2 1/3 solid innings from their bullpen, though it took five of them to get the final seven outs. Dodgers manager Don Mattingly and, one can presume, the new front office don't care at this point. They're willing to use as many pitchers as are required to get the ball to closer Kenley Jansen.

"That's pretty much what we're always trying to do, but we're just willing to use more people to do it," Mattingly said.

The bullpen has been a source of frustration for this team for weeks. The front office has scrambled for solutions while acknowledging they're unlikely to find any on the trade market with teams below them blocking them with waiver claims. So, they've gone to Plans B and C. Two of the team's upper-tier pitching prospects, Jharel Cotton and Chris Anderson, recently were promoted to Triple-A Oklahoma City and converted to relief to see if they might be able to get some outs for the Dodgers in September and, who knows, maybe beyond.

Plan C has been to remain cautiously hopeful the pitchers themselves could iron things out. There are some reasons for hope, though it might not seem like it at times. Dodgers relievers rank 13th in the National League in ERA but are No. 1 in strikeouts per nine innings and a respectable No. 5 in walks per nine. There really is no explanation for their struggles other than bad luck and making mistakes at the worst possible times.

"Even though the numbers might not suggest it, I still have confidence in all those guys down there, and they were able to get it done today," said starting pitcher Brett Anderson, who breezed until there were two outs in the seventh and Chase Utley dropped a pop-up for an error. After that, Cincinnati rallied with a couple of RBI hits and, suddenly, one swing of the bat would have made it a one-run game.

Instead, Jim Johnson, the most beleaguered of a beleaguered group, struck out pinch hitter Ryan LaMarre.

Jansen, who had blown a save three days earlier in Houston, allowed the tying run to come to the plate in the ninth after a hit off Utley's glove and a walk, but he struck out Eugenio Suarez to end the game.

The Dodgers might not have a dominant seventh-inning guy and a dominant eighth-inning guy, like some teams do, but there is enough time to find a pitcher or two who could get them where they want to go. Avilan looks like he might be one of them against lefties. Juan Nicasio has worked his way from being a long man to pitching late in losable games.

"You try to stay with those guys, knowing they have the stuff," Mattingly said. "We have some youth, but we also have a couple guys who are capable of getting hot, and that's really what we need -- for a couple guys to really get hot and allow us to put some combinations out there."

The combinations keep changing, and they probably will for a while. Who knows, the names might do some changing, too. September call-ups will begin to arrive on Tuesday. But the Dodgers are going to keep poking and prodding until they find the right people to get what can be the most difficult outs. Their season might depend on the outcome.