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IT'S A HUGE SIGH OF RELIEF DODGERS' COMPLETE BULLPEN MAKEOVER FAR FROM COSMETIC.

Byline: TONY JACKSON Staff Writer

The bullpens at Dodger Stadium are tucked into dimly lit corners of the outfield, where the relievers spend most of each game both literally and figuratively in the shadows. They are the offensive linemen of baseball, toiling in thankless anonymity until one of them blows a game, in which case that unfortunate soul finds the spotlight trained squarely on him.

As recently as three weeks ago, the spotlight was shining in that general direction on a fairly frequent basis.

The Dodgers lost 13 of their first 14 games after the All-Star break. And while the offense looked dead and the rotation looked like it was tired of having to be perfect to have a chance, the bullpen didn't escape blame. Over that stretch, Dodgers relievers combined to go 0-3 with an 4.65 ERA, with all of those losses coming in extra innings.

It was late in that swoon that Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti completed a three-player trade with Kansas City that at the time seemed more about what the Dodgers were getting rid of (disgruntled starter-turned-reliever Odalis Perez) than what they were getting (right-hander Elmer Dessens). But Dessens would be the first of three key additions to the bullpen.

On July 28, former starter Brett Tomko was activated from the disabled list and assigned to the bullpen, where he went willingly. That same day, Colletti traded disappointing reliever Danys Baez to Atlanta in a three-player deal for infielder Wilson Betemit, and the reeling Dodgers began a three-game series with Washington. Sparked at least in part by a bullpen that gave up just one run in 10 innings, the Dodgers swept the Nationals.

The next day, Colletti acquired Greg Maddux from the Chicago Cubs, creating a logjam of starters. The day after that, Aaron Sele turned in sixstrong innings to win a series opener in Cincinnati. The day after that, Sele became the odd man out of the crowded rotation and dutifully accepted being dispatched to the bullpen, where he brought a more professional, level-headed presence to the unglamorous role of long reliever.

Since then, Sele has made threeappearances, including a 1 2/3-inning stint against Colorado eight days ago in which he clearly was rusty after a layoff of more than a week. But he hasn't complained once, a perfect example of a bullpen that has been revamped not only in terms of personnel but also in terms of collective attitude and, most importantly, results.

Beginning with that sweep of the Nationals, the Dodgers went on a 17-1 tear. During that stretch, the bullpen combined to go 5-0 with a 1.58 ERA; Takashi Saito, Jonathan Broxton and Giovanni Carrara combined for eight saves; and Broxton pitched 10 1/3 scoreless innings.

None of the Dodgers' seven current relievers (including Dessens, who is on the DL) was in the bullpen to begin the season.

``I think a lot of the reason for the turnaround is just the personnel changes,'' reliever Joe Beimel said. ``They obviously made an effort to get better people down there. But the other thing is just the way the team has been playing. It's kind of contagious, because everybody wants to do their job. Nobody wants to be the one who lets that winning streak end.''

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the bullpen's performance is the fact closer Eric Gagne, who underwent elbow surgery in April and then made two appearances before going down for the season with a back injury, isn't there. Gagne probably has played his last game in a Dodgers uniform. The club isn't going to pick up his $12 million contract option, and Gagne's agent, Scott Boras, isn't going to let him sign on the cheap.

In theory, that means Saito -- who has converted 13 of 14 save opportunities after Gagne got hurt and Baez failed -- will continue to be the Dodgers' closer next season and beyond. But despite his status as a rookie, the 14-year Japanese League veteran is 36 and isn't a long-term answer.

He might not even be a short-term answer. Although Saito probably will be the favorite to keep his job next spring, he will get plenty of competition from Broxton, Tomko and perhaps Yhency Brazoban, who is expected to be fully recovered from Tommy John surgery by the start of camp.

Of course, a lot could change between now and then. After all, the Dodgers planned to begin this season with Gagne as their closer, Baez as their setup man and Brazoban and Lance Carter, now at Triple-A Las Vegas, as their primary seventh-inning guys.

``We may go to spring training with the mind-set of trying it a certain way,'' Colletti said. ``But last spring training, we went in with a certain mind-set that never got off the ground. I mean, we didn't even have one day with what we thought we were going to have.''

tony.jackson@dailynews.com

(818) 713-3675

CAPTION(S):

13 photos, 3 boxes

Photo:

(1) Takashi Saito, who started the year in Las Vegas, has a team-best 13 saves and five relief wins, picking up the slack left by Eric Gagne.

Keith Birmingham/Staff Photographer

(2) DANYS BAEZ

(3) YHENCY BRAZOBAN

(4) LANCE CARTER

(5) HONG-CHIH KUO

(6) FRANQUELIS OSORIA

(7) TIM HAMULACK

(8) TAKASHI SAITO

(9) JONATHAN BROXTON

(10) JOE BEIMEL

(11) BRETT TOMKO

(12) GIOVANNI CARRARA

(13) AARON SELS

Box:

(1) OPENING DAY BULLPEN: 5-14, 5.67 ERA, 9 saves, 9 blown saves

(2) CURRENT BULLPEN: 11-4, 3.14 ERA, 17 saves, 4 blown saves

(3) DODGERS at SAN FRANCISCO

- Rich Hammond
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 18, 2006
Words:930
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