No Ace, No Problem: Dodgers' Bullpen Has LA Equipped for Playoff Success

Bleacher ReportSenior Analyst ISeptember 3, 2009

Chad Billingsley continuously runs into one bad inning.

Last night, it was a four-run, six-hit fifth inning that turned out to provide the decisive runs in a 4-1 loss.

Entering the frame, he had retired the first 13 batters of the game.

In reality, he didn’t throw that poorly against Arizona last night.

He made a big mistake by throwing a down-and-in fastball to Brandon Allen, which ended up landing halfway up the pavilion in right field.

"I was locating, even in the fifth inning," Billingsley said. "The pitch to Allen, I cut it a little bit and it came back over the middle."

The Diamondbacks then scored two more runs, but they did so on back-to-back run-scoring infield singles.

On July 28, Billingsley carried a one-hitter into the sixth against St. Louis and then allowed six runs in the inning en route to a 10-0 loss.

Manager Joe Torre seems to think that perhaps Billingsley is his own worst enemy, making the game too much about mechanics and not about making outs.

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"You don't want somebody, whether it's a hitter or a pitcher, thinking so much about mechanical stuff. Just think about getting people out, rather than the mechanics of getting them out. He's worked on that. That's what that throw day is for in between, and he did that a couple of days ago."

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that Billingsley is only 24 years old.

That is why Torre lets Billingsley work out of these tough innings, because he wants the big right-hander to learn through experience how to navigate deep into a game.

While everyone seems to think that Billingsley is underachieving and that his inability to take over as an ace will doom the Dodgers in a postseason run, I completely disagree.

Los Angeles can run out Billingsley, Clayton Kershaw, and Randy Wolf in a postseason series. While none of the hurlers fit the bill of an "ace," there is no doubt that this is a strong staff.

They have the second-best runs against average in the Senior Circuit (3.79 runs/game), just .05 behind the league-leading San Francisco Giants.

The Giants seemingly have two aces to shoulder the load—Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain.

So why is so much being made about the lack of an ace?

The starters have managed to guide this team through the season despite some shortcomings and continue to be strong down the stretch.

Wolf has been brilliant in the past month, losing only once.

He has a 2.76 ERA in the month and has turned into the workhorse the Dodgers desired.

The team has gone 5-2 in seven August starts, but both losses came on games blown by the bullpen (more specifically, James McDonald).

From June until the end of July, Kershaw was absolutely dominant.

He notched a 0.79 ERA from June 16-July 28, going 5-0 and having a strikeout-to-walk ratio of better than 2:1 (55 K/26 BB). In August, he was 0-2 but still posted a 3.62 ERA—and improved on his K/BB ratio.

Kershaw fanned 47 batters while walking only 18 in 32.1 IP in the month of August.

The Dodgers do have enough starting pitching to head into the postseason, and the main reason is because the starters don’t have to go seven-plus innings like on most other teams.

That is because the bullpen has been solid, leading the majors in ERA and wins and taking over the duties as the lynchpin for the team.

Consider this: Until Justin Upton slammed a homer on Monday, the bullpen had not allowed an earned run since Aug. 15.

In fact, in the past 18 games, the ‘pen has allowed only three earned runs (Scott Elbert gave up two runs on Tuesday in two-thirds of an inning in addition to Upton’s Monday homer).

If a starter works six innings, Torre can turn the ball over to Ronald Belisario for the seventh, George Sherrill for the eighth, and Jonathan Broxton in the ninth.

Belisario has been outstanding since returning from the DL, tossing 10.2 IP and allowing just one earned run, which came on a Clint Barmes solo home run at Coors Field.

Sherrill has been downright unhittable since joining the club, providing the eighth inning threat that the Dodgers needed. He has allowed just one run as a Dodger, and that was on a solo home run.

General manager Ned Colletti acquired Sherrill because he knows that the bullpen is the strength of this team, and the trade is paying dividends already.

Broxton hit a rough stretch of games in late July and early August, but in his last 10 appearances he has not surrendered an earned run. In that span, he has ripped off five saves in a row while striking out 17 batters and walking only four in just 10.2 IP.

All the starters need to do is make it through six innings—they average 5.7 IP/start—and the game is put in good hands.

So while many “experts” think the lack of a starting ace is the major weakness of Los Angeles, that bullpen is an ace in the hole if you ask me.

PJ Ross is a Featured Columnist for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

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