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A Walk In and Out of the Woods
2004-05-09 19:55
by Jon Weisman

Hello from 20-10land - just a fork in the road over from 19-11ville, where the Dodger bullpen tried to have everyone walk this afternoon.

See, Eric Gagne's save Friday wasn't so cheap after all, was it?

Look, let's make sure we know who to blame first for the near collapse today. The Pirates wouldn't know how to take a walk if a Boy Scout was helping them cross the street, but the Dodger bullpen still found a way to free-pass four consecutive 'Burghers with the bases loaded. However great you've been all season, that's hard to excuse.

It was fine by me, if Odalis Perez really needed to come out, that Dodger manager Jim Tracy tried Jose Lima with a five-run lead, and fine still that his second choice was Darren Dreifort.

But when the tying and winning runs reach base, you go with Gagne to put out the fire.

Tracy's explanation - "I wasn't going to warm Eric Gagne up in the eighth inning on May 9," he told the Times, is hogwash - the kind of reasoning that, quite frankly, is what puts Tracy's job in jeopardy despite his overall success.

If Gagne was available at all, you use him at the most critical spot. If you think Tom Martin or Duaner Sanchez (who, to be fair, made a great pitch on Jason Kendall only to allow a fluke 40-foot game-tying single) can get out of a bases-loaded jam, then they should be fine to work a ninth inning with the bases empty.

If May 9 isn't important enough to put Gagne on turbo-thrust, then you don't use him for two innings in the 11th and 12th - you go straight to Brian Falkenborg.

I like Jim Tracy - and he made a big move giving Olmedo Saenz a chance to hit his game-winning home run in the 14th. But it's not as if he hasn't been using Gagne in the eighth inning already this season, and it's not as if the Dodgers didn't have an off day tomorrow. If he had said, "I want these other guys to be able to pitch under pressure," that would have been a satisfactory defense. It might be debatable, but it's defensible. The explanation Tracy did give was not defensible.

Tracy is so close to being not just a good manager but a great one - if only he could stop thinking himself into system crashes.

In any case, please enjoy your two-night stay in 20-10land.

* * *

Aaron Boone is fine to consider for second base in the stretch run, I suppose, but he is no replacement for the new Adrian Beltre. You don't wait this long for a star to emerge only to let it shoot itself into another galaxy.

* * *

Update: All day long, I've been trying to think of the game today's reminded me of. I knew the Dodgers had blown a big lead in the ninth inning in Pittsburgh one year, around this time of year, and that it was a turning point in a season that started with promise but ended in disappointment. In these situations, I turn to Bob Timmermann for help - and sure enough, he found the game for me. He also supplied me with Bill Plaschke's game story - a really good one, so I'm going to break the rules and reprint it at length, at least until I get a cease-and-desist order:

For most of a rainy Monday afternoon at Three Rivers Stadium, Tim Belcher had done it all.

The Pittsburgh Pirates had one hit and only four baserunners in eight innings. Belcher struck out eight. He retired 12 of the last 13 he faced.

And he supported his teammates by throwing an inside pitch that cleared both benches in a near brawl.

But citing a tired arm, he would not pitch the ninth.

In case Belcher forgot what sort of bullpen he was dealing with, Pat Perry and Jay Howell soon reminded him. They blew a 5-1 lead in the ninth, and the Pirates won, 6-5, before 26,171.

The Dodgers were within one out of extending their season-high five-game winning streak and still leading, 5-3, when Howell gave up a bases-loaded single by Jose Lind that skipped beyond the reach of a diving Eddie Murray and into right field.

Bobby Bonilla and Gary Redus scored, and a surprised Don Slaught raced home when Hubie Brooks' bouncing throw from right field eluded catcher Mike Scioscia and rolled to the backstop. Howell, in only his fourth appearance since 27 days of inactivity after knee surgery, was late in backing up home plate.

It was a vivid example of why the Pirates lead the National League East--and why the Dodgers will be exposed as pretenders in the West until they stop pretending everything is fine in their bullpen.

"A bad, bad loss," Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda said. "We needed just one more out and couldn't get it. We had it won. We should have won. Bad loss."

And a bad game. Players were attempting to hit each other with baseballs, fists and threats. A feud resurfaced that dates to July 24, when Dodger Tim Crews hit Gary Redus in the face with a fastball. There were no punches thrown Monday, but many warnings were issued.

"There is bad blood here, period," said Jim Gott, the Dodger reliever who played for the Pirates last season. "And it will stay that way, no question."

The Dodger bullpen did nothing to ease the tension for Lasorda. Dodger relief pitchers have lost six games the team led in the sixth inning or later.

The Dodger bullpen is 4-6 with a 4.70 earned-run average. It is last in the National League with seven saves. So why would Belcher hand the bullpen the game by telling coaches in the seventh inning that he could pitch only one more inning?

"I had been scuffling with my arm strength all month, I was finally getting that strength back . . . and I didn't want to leave it out there," Belcher said. "I threw what, 120 pitches? OK, 110. The way my arm has felt, that's plenty.

"And we had a four-run lead, didn't we? I guess it was just one of those unfortunate days for the bullpen."

Said Lasorda: "He told us in the seventh that he could go one more inning. I have to believe what he tells me."

Belcher is considered one of the toughest players on the team. However, he was also the most outspoken Dodger after Orel Hershiser's reconstructive shoulder surgery earlier this spring.

Because Hershiser's problems were considered a result of too many innings pitched, Belcher said that he would begin using "better sense" when it came to his right arm.

Monday marked the second time in four starts since Hershiser's surgery that Belcher has removed himself from a game. In an eventual rainout May 13 in New York, he would not return to the mound after an interruption of more than two hours.

"After a game like this, I wonder if he'll still feel the same way," one Dodger said.

Perry, who gave up three singles, a walk and a wild pitch to his six batters, was making his fourth appearance since returning from last winter's shoulder surgery.

Howell, who walked Slaught and then gave up the winning single to Lind, said he is not ready for pressure situations. He has lost two of his four post-surgery appearances and refused to finish another game because of shoulder stiffness.

"It (arm strength) wasn't very good, I don't think," he said. "I'm not where I should be, physically. And it is disturbing. You've seen it. What have I done out there?

"There will have to be discussions, because I don't know if I can continue pitching my way into shape under conditions like this."

Said Lasorda: "I didn't get word of that before the game, but if he tells us that, then we'll have to do something about it. He's the guy who knows about his arm."

The Pirate ninth overshadowed the bitterness of the series. In addition to Crews hitting Redus last season, the Pirates cite a Belcher pitch that nearly hit Bonilla in the head in Los Angeles May 1. The Dodgers believe Randy Kramer retaliated by hitting Belcher in the left hip in that game.

Monday's trouble began in the fifth inning, when Hubie Brooks was hit in the left elbow by a Bob Walk fastball. Belcher's first pitch to the Pirates' first hitter in the fifth, Slaught, sailed behind Slaught's back. Slaught righted himself, threw up his arms, and began shouting at Belcher as benches cleared.

With the exception of Gott grabbing Bonilla and then engaging in a shoving match with Andy Van Slyke, there was more shouting than pushing.

In the Dodger sixth, Kramer spun Belcher around with an inside pitch that barely missed hitting him, and the Dodger bench nearly cleared again. Only Lasorda's exhortations stopped an angry Kal Daniels and Mickey Hatcher from charging Kramer, who was ejected from the game along with Pirate Manager Jim Leyland.

"Everybody in the ballpark knew Belcher was throwing at Slaught. I don't think we started anything," Leyland said.

Said Lasorda: "If he gives us that medicine, we have to give it back. And we don't want to give it back. We hold no animosity for them at all."

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