Dave Roberts stood on the lip of the mound at Chase Field and rubbed a baseball with his hands. It was too late to transfer any magic onto the object. It was too late to save this evening. The Dodgers' bullpen had already blown a lead and cost Clayton Kershaw a victory in a 4-3 defeat to the Diamondbacks.
Managing in the major leagues is challenging. Managing in the major leagues with a tinderbox bullpen is excruciating. For most of his first two seasons running the Dodgers, Roberts avoided this fate. His third year at the helm has proved far more troubling, at least through the first six weeks. He does not know whom he can trust among his relievers; in truth, he must mistrust them all.
"The 'pen, the last nine, 10 days, it's been rough," Roberts said. "It's been a slump. We've got to find a way to get out of it."
Adam Liberatore became the latest reliever to falter. He was not an outlier: Daniel Hudson, Tony Cingrani and Pedro Baez have all met similar fates in the last few days. On Tuesday, trying to protect a one-run lead for Kershaw and the Dodgers, Liberatore faced three batters in the seventh. The first two hit singles. The third was Arizona outfielder Daniel Descalso. He slashed a two-run triple to send the Dodgers (12-17) careening toward their seventh defeat in eight games.
The standings do not offer solace. The Dodgers are 2-5 in games started by Kershaw and 1-7 against Arizona. They trail the Diamondbacks by nine games in the National League West.
"It doesn't matter what month it is," Kershaw said. "If you're 10 games out, you better start playing well."
Kershaw gave up two runs, both on solo home runs, in six innings. He struck out six. Cody Bellinger supplied a two-run homer in the third inning as the Dodgers took a 3-1 lead. After Bellinger went deep, the offense did not record another hit. And the pitching staff could not hold the advantage.
Kershaw returned to the mound after a bizarre outing last week. Facing the Miami Marlins, Kershaw lost command of his fastball, curveball and slider. He issued six walks in five innings, and former Dodger Miguel Rojas bashed a three-run homer. It was Kershaw's shortest outing of the season.
On Tuesday, he ran into a force his teammates could not contain the night before. Diamondbacks outfielder A.J. Pollock had homered three times Monday, and in Tuesday's second inning. Kershaw fell behind 3-1. Pollock destroyed the next pitch for a solo shot.
"Probably shouldn't have thrown a bad slider, 3-1, right there," Kershaw said. "Especially the way he's going."
Bellinger introduced himself to Arizona starter Matt Koch in the third inning. With a runner at first, Bellinger pounded a 92.1-mph fastball deep into the right-field seats. He trotted around the bases at a reasonable clip. Two days earlier, he did not hustle enough to meet Roberts' standards. Now the manager greeted Bellinger in the dugout with a double high-five. The offense added another run after a two-base error by Descalso in the fourth.
Kershaw dealt with traffic on the bases in the third and the fourth. The stress caused his pitch count to rise.
In the fifth, pinch-hitter Christian Walker got a 2-1 slider at the waist and Walker launched a solo shot into the second deck of the left-field stands.
"I threw a bad slider," Kershaw said. "He did what he's supposed to do with it."
From there, the game nearly slipped from Kershaw's grasp. Descalso singled. Chase Utley could not smother a hard-hit grounder off the bat of shortstop Nick Ahmed. Looming in the on-deck circle were five-time All-Star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and Pollock.
Goldschmidt gave the ballpark a jolt — but little more. Goldschmidt connected with a 3-2 curveball, but the result was only a towering fly ball into left field. Pollock chopped a grounder for the inning's third out.
The inning left Kershaw's pitch count at 92. Roberts sent him back for the sixth. Kershaw had much less trouble in securing the next three outs. He finished the inning in nine pitches. He had gone deep, but not deep enough.
"I'll hopefully make a few adjustments, try to get deeper in the game next time," Kershaw said.
His hopes for a win were dashed in the seventh. Liberatore, a left-handed reliever, faced a pair of right-handed hitters to start the outing. Third baseman Deven Marrero hit a single, and catcher John Ryan Murphy did the same. Up came Descalso, a left-handed batter, who capitalized on a belt-high fastball for the game-deciding triple.
"I just made bad pitches," Liberatore said. "They're too good to do that to."
Through 29 games, the Dodgers clearly miss the duo of Brandon Morrow and Tony Watson, who aided their bullpen in the second half of 2018. The Dodgers acquired Tom Koehler and Scott Alexander as replacements. Koehler is on the disabled list. Alexander is in the minors.
And few in this current iteration of the bullpen deserve their manager's trust.
"It's a funk," Roberts said. "We've got to get out of it."