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Dodgers Need Relief : Lasorda Insists That His Guys, Young and Howell, Will Provide It

Times Staff Writer

The letter arrived a few days ago, among a stack of mail that is regularly delivered to Dodger relief pitcher Matt Young’s locker in the Dodger Stadium clubhouse.

But this one drew Young’s immediate attention, simply because it was addressed to: Jack Young Blood

Coaching Staff, L.A. Rams

Los Angeles Coliseum

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Los Angeles, Calif.

How it got to Matt Young of the Dodgers is one of those postal mysteries. But Young has pinned the letter, unopened, to his locker, perhaps as a reminder that being a Dodger reliever does not guarantee celebrity status.

But then, given the often shaky performances by the Dodger bullpen, the short relievers in particular, maybe Young should feel fortunate that it wasn’t hate mail.

Going into tonight’s game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Dodger Stadium, the bullpen has produced only six saves, lowest in the major leagues, and put together a group earned-run average of 4.64. Opponents have scored on the bullpen in all but 13 of its 37 appearances.

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Young has four saves and has pitched well recently, but his ERA has been trimmed only to 7.27. Ken Howell, the top right-handed reliever, hasn’t recorded a save since last September and has a 4.91 ERA. Strangely, at a time when the Dodger bullpen seems in shambles, there is a positive feeling coming from Manager Tom Lasorda and his two short relievers.

That may be because the uncertainty about which pitcher Lasorda will regularly use seemingly has been solved by trading right-hander Tom Niedenfuer, previously the third arm in the Dodgers’ short-relief arsenal, to Baltimore.

So, for good or bad, you’ll be seeing a lot of Young and Howell when Dodger starters falter.

Young remains the only left-handed short reliever, since recently acquired Brad Havens figures to be used mostly in middle relief. And Howell figures to be the only right-hander waiting for the call in the late innings.

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“When all three of us were here, we really didn’t have one guy go out there and take charge,” Young said. “None of us took the bull by the horns.”

Although Young said that he did not mind sharing work with Howell and Niedenfuer, Howell indicated that it caused an uneccessary burden.

“Everybody wants to get the consistent chances to go out and get the save opportunities,” Howell said. “When you have three guys, you go out and try too hard. It becomes a situation where you’re battling against the other guy in the bullpen.

“You think, ‘I have to do good.’ And then, when the other person does good, you think, ‘I have to do good again so I can get the job.’ What happens is that it becomes too much of a challenge between individuals instead of us just going out there and doing it.

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“Now, with Matt from the left side and only me from the right, when it gets to the seventh, eighth and ninth (innings), you know you have a chance to get in there. It used to be hard to relax. You were afraid to make a mistake because you’d come out.”

Despite the trade of Niedenfuer, the bullpen has not been mistake-free.

Howell has pitched only twice since Niedenfuer’s departure. He walked the only batter he faced in the ninth inning of an 8-6 win over the New York Mets, then pitched a scoreless ninth inning in a 3-1 loss to Montreal Monday night.

Young, however, has emerged as the closest thing to a “closer” the Dodgers have. After losing Friday night’s game to the Mets, thanks in part to his own throwing error, Young picked up two saves against the Mets over the weekend.

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Lasorda’s handling of his short relievers mostly has been to use the one most effective until he proves ineffective. But with Niedenfuer gone, the options have diminished. "(Young) and Kenny Howell are my guys now,” Lasorda said. “Matt Young’s got a great arm and he’s showing it. I think (Howell) has got to realize that (right-handed reliever) responsibility is his alone. He should do everything he can to do it successfully.”

Howell has not pitched consistently well since early last summer. After the All-Star break last season, Howell posted a 3-6 record with a 6.30 ERA. He collected his last save Sept. 3 against Montreal.

This season, Howell has given up 10 earned runs in 18 innings. As was the case last season, walks have been a problem. He has walked 11 so far this season. “I really feel I’m throwing the ball good,” Howell said. “Even when I’m walking people, I’m still around the plate, not way outside or up. I’d like to continue being around the plate the rest of the season.”

Because Niedenfuer is gone, Howell, at the very least, will be assured of being around the ballpark this season. The perpetually optimistic Howell says he never worried about being left out, and he said he took the Niedenfuer trade as a show of confidence in his ability.

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“When they made the trade, it was at a time when I wasn’t very effective,” Howell said. “But when it happened, I felt that the man (Lasorda) must have a lot of confidence in me. Maybe he feels that, through my past performance, I’ll come out of this slump.

“I know the media and the fans think I’ve been ineffective, but the saves and wins are going to come along. I can’t sit here and harp over it. I’m not going to do that.”

Young’s performance has not been as poor as his 1-5 record and 7.27 ERA would indicate. Young recently had a stretch in which he had not allowed a run to any of the 18 runners he had inherited. But he has given up 14 of his own runs.

His most recent saves in New York have boosted Young’s spirits and, it seems, Lasorda’s confidence in him.

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“I just think at the start (of the season), he was just trying to impress people too much, trying to show that we made a good trade,” Lasorda said. “Now that he’s relaxed more, you see what type of pitcher he is.”

Young said the pressure slackened when he recorded his first save April 12, after pitching two scoreless innings against the San Francisco Giants.

“Hopefully, I will keep pitching well,” Young said. “Tommy’s getting more confidence in me. Whereas before he might have left a starter in too long, maybe now he might put me in before it gets to desperation time.”

After that game and the other three in which he has earned a save, Young has been asked if it would be a turning point.

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Knowing the troubled times the bullpen has experienced and probably will continue to experience, Young just smiles and says, “The saga continues.”


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