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BULLPEN LOOKS TO BE `OBSCURE' BEIMEL MAY BE OUT FOR DIVISION SERIES.

Byline: VINCENT BONSIGNORE Staff Writer

Nobody knows better than Greg Maddux the dramatic impact a bullpen can have in the postseason.

Only in Maddux's case, it hasn't always been a positive one.

When the future Hall of Famer was with the Atlanta Braves through their long run of National League division titles, Braves relievers were responsible for eight playoff losses.

Two were in deciding games.

It's the difference between Maddux potentially owning two or three World Championship rings. Instead, he only has one.

``I don't look at it like the bullpen blew those games,'' Maddux said. ``Maybe if the starters pitched better or the offense hit more we would have won those games, you know? It's just that you only notice the bullpen when they screw up. Especially a closer. They can save 10 straight games, then blow the 11th and it's big news all over the place. It's sort of a double-standard, if you ask me.''

Nevertheless, even Maddux concedes the Dodgers' bullpen will be a huge factor in the playoffs.

No matter how many home runs Nomar Garciaparra hits or how many bases Rafael Furcal steals, nothing changes the fact the Dodgers' starting rotation is a collection of five-to-six-inning pitchers. That usually means from the sixth inning on, the game is in the hands of the bullpen.

And right now, that's a risky proposition, especially after the Dodgers learned Tuesday that left-hander Joe Beimel, who pitched impressively in the second half, cut his pitching hand early Tuesday and might not be available for the series.

The Dodgers' bullpen is the shakiest of all the teams in the National League playoffs. It has lost the most games (25), converted the second- fewest saves (40) and has the worst ERA (4.12). It also is the least experienced -- only Brett Tomko and Elmer Dessens have pitched in relief in the postseason.

Nevertheless, it's a group that figures prominently in the Dodgers' fate the next few weeks.

``We just want to be as obscure as possible,'' Beimel said before the injury. ``If we blow a lead, it's pretty glaring and everyone knows the loss was our fault. But when no one notices us or talks about us, that's a good thing. It means we're doing our jobs.''

Beimel represented one-third of the Dodgers' best blueprint for late-inning success, working in concert with hard-throwing rookie set-up man Jonathan Broxton and 36-year-old closer Takashi Saito to close out the final three innings of a win.

The trio has combined to win 12 games against just five losses while saving a combined 29 games. Each had an ERA less than 3.00, with Saito leading the way at 2.07.

``It's hard to imagine where we'd be without those three guys out there giving us innings,'' Dodgers manager Grady Little said. ``They've been a big, big part of our success.''

The rest of the bullpen hasn't offered anywhere near the same consistency, leaving the Dodgers extremely vulnerable beyond Saito and Broxton, especially with Beimel's injury.

Tomko stumbled badly in September after enjoying some initial success upon leaving the rotation for the bullpen after the All-Star break.

Aaron Sele, Dessens and Tim Hamulack continually flirted with disaster when called upon down the stretch, raising serious doubts about their postseason status.

During the final two weeks of the season, Little had no choice but to ride his three most effective relievers in close games.

``That's just the way it is,'' Little said. ``We're at a time in the season where there isn't any slack time. We need to win games.''

Not one reliever the Dodgers brought to Los Angeles from Vero Beach remains on the active roster, and aside from Tomko, no one in the current bullpen even started the year with the Dodgers.

``That's something I don't think I've ever seen for a team playing meaningful games in September,'' Little said. ``To have a total overhaul like that is unusual.''

But necessary.

Between injury (Eric Gagne) and ineffectiveness (Danys Baez and a host of others) the Dodgers' bullpen was in a constant state of flux as general manager Ned Colletti and Little searched for the right pieces.

Interestingly, the unlikely trio of Saito, Broxton and Beimel finally provided some consistency over the second half of the season.

Saito signed with the Dodgers as a non-roster invitee after spending first 14 years as a pro in Japan. It was more whim than anything else -- he wanted to experience at least one season in the big leagues before walking away from the game for good.

Retirement seemed most likely when the Dodgers sent him to Triple-A to start the season, but when Gagne learned he needed additional arm surgery last April, Saito was promoted to Los Angeles. He eventually took the closer role from Baez, then compiled a team rookie-record 24 saves.

``To say I expected any of this wouldn't be accurate,'' Saito said. ``To think I'd enjoy this much success or be standing here talking as the closer is a big, big, surprise.''

Broxton and Beimel started the year in Triple-A, but both got the call to L.A. when the bullpen struggled early in the season.

Broxton, a closer in waiting, is a power-throwing right-hander who consistently throws in the 97-100 mph range.

``He's got one asset that a lot of pitchers don't have,'' Little said. ``And that's the ability to strike someone out.''

The wild-card is Tomko, a career starter who moved to the bullpen in late July. After pitching effectively through the first month of the transition, Tomko faded with a 5.40 ERA in September. If he can get back on track in the postseason, he'll provide another quality arm to go with Saito and Broxton.

``Right now we're all just focused on what we have to do,'' Tomko said. ``You don't look too far ahead, you don't look too far behind.

``That's crucial. We all know the teams that do well in the playoffs usually have the best bullpens. Hopefully we'll be one of them.''

vincent.bonsignore@dailynews.com

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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 4, 2006
Words:1010
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