LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Dodgers decided to stay with an extra reliever and leave their bench a man short for at least another day or two. But what they learned in a 6-1 loss to the New York Mets before 44,626 on Friday night at Dodger Stadium was that when it comes to the bullpen, quality is far more important than quantity.
In the bottom of the seventh inning, with sizzling right-hander Vicente Padilla having given up only two runs, one of which was unearned, and more important having thrown only 77 pitches, Dodgers manager Joe Torre felt he had no choice but to pinch hit for Padilla with a man on first and two outs. Mets lefty Johan Santana was looking every bit the part of a two-time Cy Young Award winner and was basically dominating the Dodgers at that point, but the Mets still led only 2-1 and Torre believed the game was still very much within reach.
But this is where a 13-man pitching staff hurts you: If you assume Torre didn't want to burn his backup catcher or send up the left-handed-hitting likes of Garret Anderson or Xavier Paul, his only right-handed pinch-hitting option was Ronnie Belliard, who came in hitting .216 for the season, .115 for July, .172 as a pinch hitter and .160 for his career against Santana.
All too predictably, Belliard grounded weakly to short. Now, Padilla was gone. Any chance of a Dodgers victory would soon be gone, as well.
"It was obviously the wrong decision," Torre said. "We couldn't stop them from scoring, so sitting here now, I wish I would have done something else."
With eight relievers on the roster and seven of them available -- setup man Hong-Chih Kuo wasn't because he had either pitched or warmed up each of the previous three games -- Torre seemed intent on using as many of them as he could in the eighth.
He started the inning with Jeff Weaver, who promptly walked the first two batters, the speedy Jose Reyes and Luis Castillo. After Angel Pagan bunted them over, Torre brought in James McDonald to face David Wright, who delivered a sacrifice fly to give the Mets a 3-1 lead. After McDonald intentionally walked Carlos Beltran, Torre brought in lefty Jack Taschner to face one batter, left-handed-hitting Ike Davis. Taschner, who was making his Dodgers debut, threw a wild pitch and then walked Davis. Torre then brought in Travis Schlichting, who on the first pitch he threw gave up a three-run double to Jason Bay, making it 6-1.
Four relievers. Four walks. Four runs.
"Weaver in that situation certainly can't come in and walk Reyes," Torre said. "His numbers were good against Reyes [2-for-13]. When you walk the first two guys right there, that can be pretty tough to overcome. And that was our first look at Taschner. We have just been unable to shut people down out of our bullpen. If we're going to do anything in this league, we're going to have to figure it out."
In the Dodgers' first nine games coming out of the All-Star break, their bullpen has a collective ERA of 6.85. Their closer, Jonathan Broxton, who was available to pitch Friday night after being sent home in the middle of Thursday's game because of a stomach illness, has technically blown one save but really has blown two.
And that is a major reason why the fourth-place Dodgers (51-46) once again find themselves six games behind division-leading San Diego in the National League West.
"Right now, we have a lot of different bodies down there, and we need to figure out what their roles are," Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said. "Kuo and Broxton obviously know what their roles are, but now we need to figure out everybody else. Really, what your role should be is to make pitches and get people out, no matter when you're brought in to pitch. But we need to figure out when each guy can pitch."
Earlier this week, the Dodgers figured out a perfect way to overcome their bullpen problems -- they simply didn't use their bullpen. With Chad Billingsley pitching a shutout Wednesday night against San Francisco and Hiroki Kuroda pitching eight shutout innings Thursday night against the Mets, the Dodgers needed only one inning from their 'pen, that a scoreless ninth by Kuo on Thursday.
Alas, since the break those are the only two games in which the Dodgers' bullpen didn't give up at least one run.
One thing that has become glaring is the absence of Ronald Belisario, the reliable middle-innings man who gave up a total of three runs over 17 appearances from June 1 until he was suddenly and inexplicably put on the restricted list July 7, with one published report saying he had entered a treatment program for substance abuse.
It still isn't clear how long Belisario will be out. But what is crystal clear is that his absence has left a gaping hole in the Dodgers' bullpen.
"Oh yeah, I think that's fair to say," Torre said. "He was pretty durable for us, and he had really graduated to that role. He could pitch late in games, come in with men on base, do a lot of different things, and more times than not, he did it very well. But we knew that. When he was taken away, we certainly knew he wasn't going to be easy to replace."
In the wake of Padilla's tough-luck loss, a solid performance that might have continued if Torre hadn't felt compelled to go to his bench when he did, the Dodgers starters have given up three earned runs in 30 innings over their past four starts. The Dodgers have lost two of those games.
"You just hate to waste a performance like this from Padilla," Torre said.
Dodgers third baseman Casey Blake, who has spent much of this season and certainly much of this month slumping, might be breaking out of it. He went 2-for-4 with a pair of singles, giving him two hits for the third time in the past four games, during which time he is 6-for-15 with a double, a home run and three RBIs.
After the Mets put runners on the corners with none out in the first inning, Padilla seemed to have gotten out of the jam with no damage, getting Pagan to take a called third strike and blowing a high fastball past Wright, with Russell Martin appearing to throw out Castillo trying to steal second. But in attempting to make a sweep tag of Castillo, who came in behind him standing up, Dodgers second baseman Blake DeWitt dropped the ball, allowing Castillo to take second safely as Reyes crossed the plate on the front end of the double-steal attempt with the Mets' first run.
"I don't even know [what happened]," DeWitt said. "It just came out of my glove. That is a play that has to be made, and it didn't work out. Just come back and get 'em tomorrow."
Quote of the day
"My first game last year, I threw 10 pitches and got out of the inning quick. I'm like, 'You know, I can do this.' I felt that I had it. So I just trusted, kept learning from [high Single-A Inland Empire pitching coach] Charlie Hough and now Double D [Double-A Chattanooga pitching coach Danny Darwin]. I trusted all that stuff, and I know I can do it." -- Kenley Jansen on his transition last season from a lightly regarded minor league catcher to one of the Dodgers' top relief-pitching prospects when he agreed to change positions. Jansen was recalled for the first time before Friday's game.
Carlos Monasterios (3-2, 3.61) becomes the latest to be inserted into the ever-changing fifth spot in the Dodgers' rotation, the third time this season the club will have tried the rookie right-hander there. He is 2-2 with a 5.40 ERA in six starts this season. Right-hander Mike Pelfrey (10-5, 4.01) goes for the Mets. He has struggled to a 12.89 ERA over his past four starts, failing to get through the fifth inning in any of them, and he has taken a loss in each of his past three.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.