The Dodgers thought they were past this. That their once-struggling bullpen finally became a force.
A blatant weakness at the start of the season, the team’s relief corps appeared to have turned a corner in May.
Yes, Evan Phillips rediscovered his dominant form. But just as importantly, Caleb Ferguson, Brusdar Graterol, and Yency Almonte emerged as reliable, high-leverage options, giving the Dodgers a defined end-of-inning hierarchy they could rely on to close games.
However, performance has dropped in recent weeks. The inconsistency has returned.
And in a 9-8 loss to the Cincinnati Reds on Tuesday night—a loss in which the Dodgers squandered a five-run lead broken by Ferguson’s triple save in the ninth—only one conclusion was clear:
The Dodgers’ bullpen is another problem, one with few obvious solutions other than internal improvement or external additions leading up to the trade deadline.
“This was a tough one,” manager Dave Roberts said. “With this group of poor we have in the pen, it shouldn’t happen.”
The Dodgers initially appeared en route to an opening win of the series at Great American Ball Park, leading 8-3 at the end of the fourth inning on a home run by JD Martinez and a grand slam by Freddie Freeman.
“Offensively, we scored enough runs to win a baseball game,” said Roberts.
But on the mound, an unusually wobbly Dodgers pitching staff — which ranks 22nd in earned run average so far this season — stumbled again.
Gonsolin managed to complete just five innings, unable to recover from the three-run lead he squandered in a 24-pitch bottom of the first.
“I just fell behind early in the performance,” said Gonsolin, who has pitched past the fifth inning in only three of eight starts.
“What that does,” Roberts later complained, “is it exposes you in the bullpen.”
Exposed, the Dodgers’ dodgers were indeed.
Almonte gave up one run on three hits in the sixth to increase his season ERA to 6.84. Graterol added another run in the seventh inning, the third consecutive appearance in which he failed to put out an out.
Phillips was the only bright spot, lining up the heart of the Reds lineup in the eighth.
But with their best reliever burned — Phillips wasn’t an option for a second inning due to his recent workload, Roberts said — the manager faced a decision in the ninth inning as he secured an 8-6 lead.
Trusting Ferguson, a southpaw, against a string of right-handed Reds batters at the bottom of the league? Or call up Shelby Miller to set up right-on-right matchups?
“We count on [Ferguson] to be a lever regardless of handedness,” said Roberts, after choosing the former. “I felt that part of the order, he has to be able to handle that.”
Instead, Ferguson’s command faded amid a late game rain.
He walked the lead-off batter, followed by another with one out to load the bases.
“It sped him up,” said Roberts, who also believed a missed hit frustrated the pitcher. “It’s just no excuse to let that affect your performance. That was clear tonight.”
Ferguson then forced a run with another walk, before putting down Jake Fraley in his lone left-on-left game with a wide 2-and-2 fastball to tie the score at 8-8.
,,I just have to throw better”, said Ferguson, who has now conceded six runs in his last four appearances. ‘I’ve been bad. I hope Doc keeps chasing me. I’ll work it out, but at the end of the day it comes back to me. I just need to get better.”
Miller finally came in to face Matt McLain. But with the bases still loaded, McLain lifted a fly ball to center for a walk-off single that ended the game.
“This one stings,” Roberts said. “We still should have won that game.”
Instead, Roberts sat shaking his head after the game, short on answers for a bullpen that now ranks 26th in ERA, 23rd in walks and hits per inning, and 26th in batting average against.
“They don’t throw the ball well,” said Roberts. “If you look down, I can trust guys, but it has to work both ways. The talent is there. But they must also do their part. Tonight is a night, we should not have lost this game.”
Not all the blame lay with the bullpen.
Max Muncy acknowledged that the offense may have “pulled our foot off the gas a little bit”. The third baseman was also in the middle of a few key defensive errors.
Gonsolin’s short start didn’t help either, continuing a worrying trend with rotations averaging barely five innings per start.
“In general,” said Roberts, “not much good.”
But it was the late-game troubles that ultimately proved most costly, knocking the Dodgers from first place in the NL West with their bullpen once again struggling to make its way.
“I don’t expect to be here all season,” said Roberts. “But as of right now, this is where we are. It just has to be better everywhere.”
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.