Sometimes the runs seem right there for the Dodgers, so maddeningly close. And yet a planet away.
The Dodgers' struggling offense returned Tuesday, scoring once again nearly the stuff of rumor.
The Dodgers were downed 10-1 by Atlanta, Braves right-hander Brandon Beachy winning his first game in seven career starts.
The Dodgers' lone run was driven in by rookie Jerry Sands, though on a groundout in the seventh.
By then, the Dodgers were down 2-0, right-hander Hiroki Kuorda having breezed through five innings but then giving up a solo home run to Martin Prado in the sixth and another to Freddie Freeman in the seventh.
The Dodgers finally scratched together a run in the bottom of the seventh after Juan Uribe singled off the glove of reliever Scott Linebrink. James Loney’s base hit sent Uribe to third.
Steve Dilbeck and The Times' Dodgers reporters
give you all the news on the boys in blue
The good news is Hong-Chih Kuo’s four-time-operated-on elbow is feeling swell. The bad news is his back is a major pain.
Enough pain that on Saturday the Dodgers placed Kuo on the 15-day disabled list with left lower back strain and called up right-hander Ramon Troncoso.
Which means now they have zero left-handers in the bullpen.
Kuo has pitched only 2 2/3 innings in four games this season, but he hasn’t looked like the left-hander who was absolutely dominant last season, became an All-Star, and by mid-August, the team’s closer. His 1.20 ERA was the lowest in Dodgers history among pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched.
This year he had a 3.38 ERA, with four walks and four strikeouts.
Troncoso suffered a disappointing 2010 season (2-3, 4.33). In seven innings and three games at triple-A Albuquerque, Troncoso was 1-0 with a 2.57 ERA, six strikeouts and one walk.
Photo: Dodgers reliever Hong-Chih Kuo delivers a pitch against the Giants earlier this month at Dodger Stadium. Credit: Katie Falkenberg / For The Times
Once he was this great find, this surprising sensation who had unexpectedly made himself a valuable part of one of baseball’s best bullpens.
Then … what?
Ramon Troncoso still looked the part of a great, young, right-handed reliever early in 2010. Then it began to slip away, and he has struggled ever since to find himself.
Even after a strong start this spring, he could not keep it going. And on Sunday, he was optioned back to the minors.
This hardly means the end for the 28-year-old Dominican, but he will once again have to try to right himself at triple-A Albuquerque, something he could never truly do there last season (5.73 ERA, 1.55 WHIP).
There had been concern that Joe Torre had gone to him too often last April (15 appearances in a 21-game stretch, though only 13 innings) and worn him out.
Then Troncoso had started so well this spring (no earned runs in his first 4 1/3 innings), it appeared he was back on track. Some already gushed he had made the team.
But in his last five appearances, he gave up six earned runs (10.80 ERA) and was once again headed back to the minors.
Since the Dodgers released Ron Mahay and optioned Travis Schlichting back to the minors Saturday, the final bullpen spot will apparently come down to left-hander Scott Elbert or right-hander Lance Cormier.
The Dodgers would prefer to have Elbert as a second lefty in the bullpen, but after an encouraging stretch he gave up three runs in one-third of an inning Saturday and now has a 7.50 ERA this spring.
In eight innings this spring, Cormier has a 2.25 ERA and a 1.50 WHIP.
-- Steve Dilbeck
It looked like a closed shop. All polished and refitted, the Dodgers bullpen seemed without vacancy.
After a disappointing 2010 (4.07 ERA, 1.35 WHIP), the relief corps entered the spring with every position seemingly spoken for.
Then down went Vicente Padilla. And off to the Venezuelan never-never land remained Ronald Belisario.
Suddenly there were two open spots. Still, there seemed a reasonable wealth of capable arms in the wings. Anyway, it kinda seemed that way.
Now the Dodgers are five days from breaking camp, and easy answers to fill the bullpen void are still hard to come by.
When camp opened, the bullpen seemed set with Jonathan Broxton, Hong-Chih Kuo, Kenley Jansen, Matt Guerrier, Blake Hawksworth, Padilla and Belisario. The only mini-suspense was supposed to be if Hawksworth could hold off left-handers Scott Elbert or Ron Mahay for the final spot.
Hawksworth, who is out of options, seems secure. But those other two spots? Check in daily.
Early on Ramon Troncoso looked like he might be returning to his 2009 form. He did not allow a run in his first four appearances, causing newbie Dodger Talk co-host Joe Block to declare he had made the team.
Yet more evidence against putting much stock into early spring results. In the four innings of Troncoso’s next four games, he gave up six runs (13.50 ERA). His overall spring ERA is now 6.23 and he’s far from a lock to be in Dodger Stadium on opening day.
The one reliever who has stepped up is veteran Mike MacDougal, unscored upon in eight appearances (7 1/3 innings). His ability was never questioned, but his control was an on-going issue. He has allowed only three hits and four walks.
If he continues anywhere near this pace, it’s hard to see MacDougal failing to make the final 25-man. Final, meaning until three days into the season when someone gets hurt.
The Dodgers would still prefer -- or anyway, should prefer -- the final spot go to a second left-hander to complement Kuo. Mahay, however, has struggled (10.70 ERA). Which once again, takes the Dodgers back to Elbert.
For several reasons, the Dodgers would very much like the former first-round pick to make the team, but they aren’t about to give it to him after his disappointing act last season. And Elbert has continued to have control problems.
But he might be forging a modest comeback. Tuesday with runners on the corners and the Dodgers leading the Cubs 1-0 in the seventh, they brought in Elbert with two outs. After falling behind 2-0 to Tyler Clovin, he came back to strike him out.
The only other candidate keeping himself in serious contention is Lance Cormier, who after giving up solo runs in his first two spring outings, hasn’t allowed a run in his last four appearances.
Elbert, Cormier, Troncoso? Opening day is March 31, and relievers are running out of time to make their case. And again close the shop.
-- Steve Dilbeck
In exchange for donating money to the Japanese tsunami and earthquake relief efforts, fans can receive an autograph from Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp or one of several other Dodgers.
Days after Hiroki Kuroda told teammates he was donating $50,000 to the relief efforts and asked them for help, the Dodgers will host a fundraiser before their game at Camelback Ranch against the Milwaukee Brewers on Saturday.
From 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., players and coaches will be signing autographs in the aisles of the third-base side of the ballpark. Among the Dodgers scheduled to participate are Ethier, Kemp, Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Casey Blake, Jonathan Broxton, Jamey Carroll, Rafael Furcal, Ted Lilly, James Loney, Vicente Padilla, Ramon Troncoso, Juan Uribe and Maury Wills. Tom Lasorda will sign autographs outside of the center-field gate.
Kuroda is starting the game but will sign autographs on the center-field concourse after he is taken out.
Fans donating $20 will receive a voucher that can be exchanged for a baseline reserve seat at one of the Dodgers’ remaining games at Camelback Ranch -- each fan can receive as many as four vouchers -- as well as two tickets to one of the two exhibition games later this month at Dodger Stadium.
Cash and checks will be accepted. Checks should be made out to the American Red Cross and have “Japan Tsunami Fund” written in the memo line.
-- Dylan Hernandez in Phoenix
Could it happen? Sure. Is it likely? No, but he’s at least building a case and causing the Dodgers to seriously think about him again.
John Ely was a brief sensation last year, answering the team’s ongoing call for a fifth starter and responding better than anyone had dared dream. Better than Ned Colletti, Joe Torre, Ely and Ely’s mommy dreamed.
During six consecutive starts from May 6 to June 1, he was 3-1 with a 1.80 ERA. He went 89 consecutive batters without allowing a walk. You kept blinking wondering if it were true.
And then it all came undone, as if Salvador Dali had suddenly taken control of Ely's pitching landscape. In his last 11 starts he went 1-8 with a stunning 8.00 ERA, including 32 walks in 54 innings.
He clearly was not the same pitcher, which is why he was ticketed for a return to triple-A Albuquerque this season.
Yet in his first three appearances this spring, he has yet to allow a run. And he is throwing strikes -- the key to his early success last season. He has yet to walk a batter and has seven strikeouts in six innings.
OK, so six spring innings amounts to precious little, but if he continues anywhere near this pace, he will pitch himself back onto the 25-man roster.
There’s no room in the rotation, but with Vicente Padilla injured and Ronald Belisario doing his annual visa dance, there are two unexpected openings in the bullpen. And Padilla was supposed to start the season as the long man.
Ely could certainly fill that role if he’s truly back on his game.
There’s reason to think he could be too. Last year he appeared to wear down and then completely lost his way. Remember, this was a 24-year-old who, aside from a couple early appearances at Albuquerque, had never pitched above double-A until last season. He had only been in the minors three years and had never thrown as many as 160 innings in any season.
Now he has a fresh start, a fresh arm and the unexpected experience from last season. The opportunity is there for him to pitch himself back onto the team.
Don Mattingly keeps saying he is not interested in keeping another left-hander in the bullpen just for the sake of a second lefty, which would only help Ely’s cause. The competition is still thick -- Ramon Troncoso, Mike MacDougal, Lance Cormier, Scott Elbert, Ron Mahay, Carlos Monasterios and now Tim Redding are all in the mix.
Ely is never going to light up the speed gun, but he proved last season that when he pitches with control, he can be highly effective. When he doesn’t, he looks overmatched.
In three early appearances this spring, he has had that control.
-- Steve Dilbeck
Love is a many-splendored thing, unless Joe Torre was going all goo-goo eyed over you in the bullpen.
Sometimes, that qualified as tough love. If Torre loved you, he tended to use you. And sometimes, too much.
Troncoso had been an unexpected delight in 2009, appearing in 73 games and posting a 2.72 ERA and even picking up six saves. The Dodgers assumed it would be more of the same last year, and things began well enough.
But Troncoso appeared in 14 of their first 20 games last April and began to slip. By the end of June his ERA was up to 5.45 and his confidence was shaken. He looked worn out. He was soon sent back to the minors, where he would spend the bulk of the next two months.
Troncoso entered this spring almost as an afterthought. The bullpen looked packed, with maybe one opening that hardly appeared earmarked for the 28-year-old.
But an injury to Vicente Padilla and Ronald Belisario’s latest AWOL routine have presented an opportunity, and Troncoso appears set on making the most of it.
Manager Don Mattingly and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt told ESPN/LA’s Tony Jackson that last season Troncoso became reluctant to use the sinker that had been so effective for him in the past.
This spring he has retired 10 of his 11 batters and at least in the early going has been impressive. His ability to pitch more than one inning could help him jump back into the Dodgers’ bullpen picture.
"His role would be to kind of fit in the middle [ahead of] whoever you have setting up," Mattingly told Jackson. "He is a guy who is going to have to pitch multiple innings."
Also on the Web:
-- The Daily News’ Tom Hoffarth takes a great look at ex-Dodger Greg Goosen, whose death last week was almost typically overshadowed by that of Duke Snider’s passing.
-- In the New York Times, ex-Dodger pitcher Ralph Branca gives a moving first-person account of Snider and how he stood up for Jackie Robinson.
-- The Los Angeles Times' Bill Shaikin writes that commissioner Bud Selig is again speaking volumes while refusing to comment on Frank McCourt’s ownership difficulties while aiding troubled Mets owner Fred Wilpon.
-- Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Passan profiles ace-in-the-making Clayton Kershaw, also taking another look at his off-season trip to Africa.
-- More from Passan: He writes that Dodgers reliever Travis Schlichting has the greatest mullet in the history of mankind, or at least baseball.
-- The Post-Gazette’s Ron Musselman writes that ex-Dodger James McDonald is thrilled to have a set role in the Pirates' rotation, where he is tentatively scheduled in the No. 3 spot.
-- TrueBlueLA’s Phil Gurnee profiles left-hander Scott Elbert, off to a slow start in Arizona.
-- More from LAT's Shaikin: Will the Dodgers let Matt Kemp run free on the bases this season, even if he’s the cleanup hitter?
-- Orange County Register travel editor Gary Warner takes a look a the Dodgers’ semi-new home in Phoenix and likes it.
-- The N.Y. Times' Ben Shpigel writes that catcher Russell Martin and right-hander Phil Hughes are bonding over their love of hockey.
-- Steve Dilbeck
Photo: Ramon Troncoso in 2010. Credit: Paul Buck / EPA
The Dodgers unexpectedly have an age-old problem.
They are an old team. Graybeards with gloves. Guys closer to swinging a walker than a bat. They don’t need human growth hormone, they need Celebrex, and an updated retirement program.
This goes against everything we’ve been told about the Dodgers for the past several years, which is part of the problem. Years go by, and the young aren’t so young anymore. Or at least so I’m told.
Of the 23 Dodgers you could reasonably expect to make their final roster, only two are younger than 26.
That’s it, two -- Clayton Kershaw (23 on March 19) and Kenley Jansen (23).
The average age of those 23 Dodgers is over 30.
That young core of offensive players is now down to three -- Matt Kemp (26), James Loney (26) and Andre Ethier (29 on April 10).
Otherwise the Dodgers' daily starting lineup is expected to have a 35-year-old catcher (Rod Barajas), a 31-year-old second baseman (Juan Uribe), a 37-year-old third baseman (Casey Blake), a 33-year-old shortstop (Rafael Furcal), and a 33-year-old (Marcus Thames) and soon-to-be-34-year-old (Jay Gibbons, happy birthday on Tuesday) splitting time in left.
Mr. Utility is 37-year-old Jamey Carroll. The frisky backup catcher is a 27-year-old kid, Dioner Navarro.
The rotation has 26-year-old Chad Billingsley and Kershaw, but also 31-year-old Jon Garland, 35-year-old Ted Lilly and 36-year-old Hiroki Kuroda.
The bullpen has 26-year-old Jonathan Broxton and Jansen, but also 28-year-old (happy birthday today) Blake Hawksworth, possibly 28-year-old Ramon Troncoso, 29-year-old Hong-Chih Kuo, 32-year-old Matt Guerrier, and eventually the allegedly 33-year-old Vincente Padilla.
And then still fighting to earn final spots are 34-year-old Aaron Miles, 35-year-old Gabe Kapler, 35-year-old (on Friday) Mike MacDougal, 38-year-old Juan Castro and 39-year-old Ron Mahay.
Geritol all around!
So much for those young Dodgers. Ah, youth, where does it fly?
These guys don’t relate to Don Mattingly, they relate to Tom Lasorda. Or John Glenn. These Dodgers are older than a Charley Steiner one-liner.
The problem with all this, of course, is that older players are more likely to break down. They end up looking for love more often in the whirlpool than the batter’s box.
And for the most part, the guys backing up the old starters are even older reserves. Old teams can still win, but they can also tag-team it to the disabled list.
Forget that youthful Dodgers routine. Old news.
-- Steve Dilbeck
Top photo: Juan Uribe. Credit: Jake Roth / US Presswire
Middle photo: Teddy Lilly. Credit: Kyle Terada / US Presswire
Bottom photo: Casey Blake. Credit: Jake Roth / US Presswire
Which is … you can never have too much pitching.
Not in April, not in the middle of summer, not in the postseason and not -- it turns out -- before the first full-squad workout.
Position players were still squeezing into their uniforms for the first time this spring, when they looked around their clubhouse and saw three relievers were already down.
Out were Vicente Padilla (elbow), Dana Eveland (hamstring) and Ronald Belisario (head).
Padilla was a lock to make the club, and Belisario was at least penciled in, so there are two openings in the bullpen that didn’t figure to be there when camp opened.
If the Dodgers open the season with seven relievers, locks are Jonathan Broxton, Hong-Chih Kuo, Matt Guerrier, and now, probably Blake Hawksworth.
Kenley Jansen, whom the Dodgers might have been tempted to start the season at triple-A to hone his still raw closing skills, now appears in a good position to make the season-opening 25-man roster.
Which at the very least still leaves two positions open. And there is always the possibility the Dodgers might temporarily elect to start the season with eight relievers.
That leaves an open field for the rest of the contenders -- Ramon Troncoso, Ron Mahay, Lance Cormier, Scott Elbert, Mike MacDougal, Jon Link, and later, Eveland. And if they wanted a long reliever, Carlos Monasterios or John Ely.
Now that three-year, $12-million deal for Guerrier is looking better, not to mention that constant late addition of veteran, if uncertain, arms.
If the first five are in, then there is still an obvious need for a second left-hander in the bullpen. That would give an edge to Mahay, Elbert and Eveland.
But newbie manager Don Mattingly has said he will take the best arms and not get locked into having to take a second lefty. That could bode well for Troncoso, who at least had a terrific 2009 and start to last season before quickly going downhill.
None of the leading right-handers, however, has a particularly impressive history against left-handed hitters -- MacDougal (.274 batting, .421 slugging), Cormier (.271, .428) or Troncoso (.268, .425) -- so one left-handed reliever figures to emerge.
So as camp opens, competition is on in at least one area. The guys who have the best springs figure to earn opening-day roster spots. Retreads and the unproven, you're all up.
Of course, with almost six weeks to go, more injuries and sore arms remain to be discovered.
-- Steve Dilbeck
Photo: Matt Guerrier. Credit: Hannah Foslien / Getty Images
If left field seems barren as the Mojave Desert, the Dodgers bullpen is a veritable metropolis.
It can be a tad confusing. During the second half, the Dodgers’ No. 1 problem was their inability to mount a consistent offense. To this frustrated group, they have added second baseman Juan Uribe. That’s all, folks.
Meanwhile, the bullpen is more crowded than George Clooney’s little black book. Arms here, arms there, arms everywhere. At least of the right-handed variety.
Certainly, last season the bullpen was a staggering disappointment. Relievers who had performed well the previous year -- Jonathan Broxton, George Sherrill, Ramon Troncoso, Ronald Belisario, Jeff Weaver, Ramon Troncoso -- almost went into a group funk.
Hong-Chih Kuo performed better than anyone had a right to expect, and Kenley Jansen shocked everyone with his stunning emergence. End of good news.
Now with the exception of Sherrill, and probably Weaver, they have all those arms back, plus they have Vicente Padilla, Matt Guerrier and Blake Hawksworth.
Say what you will about general manager Ned Colletti, but he seems to learn from his mistakes.
Not having a fifth starter killed the Dodgers in the first half, and now he has his entire rotation filled out, plus Padilla available as a swing man. If he showed too much faith in his returning bullpen a year ago, now he’s in the surplus arms business.
And still can’t be done, can he?
Because there is still a real need for a second left-hander. Kuo is the lefty island, and he’s standing there with tenuous trust placed in that rebuilt elbow.
So Colletti adds Guerrier, who is a fine relief pitcher, but he’s 32 and got three years and $12 million. Multi-year deals for relievers are always a risky business, and this is money you thought might go toward finding a left fielder.
Another right-handed reliever did not scream pressing need. The Dodgers might carry eight relievers to start the season, but typically will go with seven.
You count: Broxton, Kuo, Guerrier, Jansen, Padilla, Belisario, Hawksworth, Troncoso and unnamed left-hander.
At the least, I’d say Troncoso was in some real trouble. Maybe somebody is dealt to bring in a lefty, or maybe they just cross their fingers really hard and give Scott Elbert a shot.
It’s only December, but for now there remains a black hole in left and a bevy of right-handed relievers. It’s only December, but it’s confusing.
-- Steve Dilbeck