ANALYSIS : Dodgers Proving Not Hard to Lick : Baseball: Bullpen is biggest problem, but there are others, as lead continues to shrink.


Every afternoon, as long as the Dodgers are in first place and increasing their lead, front-office employees at Dodger Stadium are treated to ice cream, sorbet and sometimes nonfat yogurt by owner Peter O’Malley. The celebration is a Dodger tradition that started years ago.

Recently, though, like ice cream left in the sun, the Dodgers’ lead is melting. The current trip has been a disaster, the Dodgers winning only two of seven games on the part that was thought to be the easiest. The six games ahead, though, are almost certain to be tough, and, with a strike looming, could mean the season for the Dodgers, whose grip on the lead in the National League West is slipping rapidly.

You can blame in on the bullpen, Fred Claire, Tom Lasorda, the lack of scoring or, recently, the struggles of the starting pitchers and fielding lapses. Depending on how the next three games go with the Montreal Expos, you might even blame it on the dome atop Olympic Stadium, in which the Dodgers have a 5-22 record over the last five seasons.


But when the Dodgers hit Candlestick Park on Monday for a three-game series against the San Francisco Giants, there will be no more excuses. There also may be no more ice cream.

The Dodgers, with a 48-47 record, lead the Colorado Rockies by three games, but the Giants are charging. On July 6, they were 9 1/2 games behind the Dodgers. The next day, Darryl Strawberry started playing for them. Since, they have won 10 of 11 and moved within 3 1/2 games of the Dodgers.

Meanwhile, since July 7, the Dodgers have won only four of 11, only two of seven since the All-Star break, prompting the question, Is the pressure getting to the Dodgers?

“No,” Lasorda said. “We have to think about what we can do, not what somebody else can do.”

There are plenty of reasons for the slump, not the least being the bullpen, which has blown 19 save opportunities. The Dodgers have come back to win five of those 19, but losing the other 13 is a key element in the team’s stagnation.

The bullpen’s most recent blunder, blowing a 4-2 lead in Tuesday night’s 7-4 loss to the New York Mets, caused Lasorda to make one of his earliest postgame exits in recent memory. The next day, Lasorda looked beat.


‘I am very disgusted, very disappointed,” the manager said. “I can’t remember any of my teams ever doing this.

“I was despondent after that game. When you are up, 4-2, you are supposed to win those ballgames. You have guys who are reputable who have done it before.”

The Dodgers and the Rockies, with 19 each, have the most blown saves in the major leagues, and the Dodgers’ percentage of saves to opportunities is one of the worst--17 saves in 36 tries.

The Dodgers’ 17 saves are the fewest in the National League--the San Diego Padres have 20 in 29 opportunities. In comparison, the Florida Marlins have the fewest blown saves, five in 32 opportunities, and that’s without Bryan Harvey. The Giants, whose relievers have been sidelined periodically, have 25 saves in 35 opportunities. Even the Angels have a better percentage, with 19 saves in 27 opportunities.

“What am I going to do?” Lasorda asked. “I have tried to figure it out. I’ve got to go with the guys that got us to where we are, and we have to go from there.”

The Dodger bullpen has been a drawback to Lasorda for the last couple of seasons. Last season, Jim Gott took over for the oft-injured Todd Worrell and saved 25 games. But Lasorda wanted a dominating left-handed closer, and all Claire, the executive vice president, has provided him with is a tryout camp.


Now, it is seemingly too late. The Dodgers, along with the other clubs, are obviously reluctant to trade for a high-priced premium closer when there might be a strike. Claire, sticking to a plan of building from the farm system, says he will not part with two premium prospects anyway, and the cost of the Chicago Cubs’ Randy Myers appears to be high.

The New York Mets’ John Franco might be available for one quality outfielder, such as Henry Rodriguez, but Claire says he’s not parting with him either. Franco is a free agent at the end of the season, which could be in three weeks, and Myers is signed through next season. He will make $3.5 million next season.

Meanwhile, the Dodgers have Worrell, who has earned 13 saves in 1 1/2 seasons with the Dodgers and is on the verge of losing his closing role to Gott. But Gott needs to step up soon.

What does Worrell think about this? Who knows? He has quit talking to reporters.

The starting pitchers, after a superb two-month stretch, are faltering too. When Orel Hershiser walked off the mound before Saturday’s game in Philadelphia because of a muscle strain, it threw the staff in disarray. Ismael Valdes, who has pitched well in relief, was given a spot start. But he had cut a fingernail too short a few days previously and developed blisters in the first inning. He was relieved by Tom Candiotti in the second.

“And Valdes was just there to help us get through to the off-day,” Lasorda said.

Candiotti came through, pitching two games in four days and giving up only two unearned runs in 13 innings. Those are the two games the Dodgers have won on this trip.

“Unfortunately, we are a little short with Orel out, but we have to pick up the bullpen and go eight or nine innings,” Kevin Gross said. “We back everybody 100% and we worked hard to get where we are. And we are not going to let it slip away. . . . If we were pointing fingers and complaining about this guy or that guy, we run into trouble. We are not about to change that as a team.”


Collectively, the pitching staff has accumulated a 5.64 earned-run average in the last seven games, with a 2-5 record, two saves and two blown saves. But it hasn’t been all their fault. Of the 43 runs scored against them this trip--including seven home runs--only 37 have been earned. The Dodgers have committed five errors in the last seven games, and faltered at other times that don’t show in the box score.

The team is hitting, but not scoring as much as necessary to prop up the pitching staff. The Dodgers have scored four or more runs in five of the seven games, but in their last three left 35 runners on base.

“We haven’t played well since the break, and we have to get something rolling,” said Tim Wallach, who is batting .429 during a nine-game hitting streak.

Meanwhile, the Dodgers trudge to dreaded Olympic Stadium, where they have suffered miserably with a condition former Dodger Eric Davis described as “domitosis.”

“I don’t think about it, hope it goes away,” Brett Butler said. “You hope you change what is in the past.”

Lasorda will make no predictions.

“I don’t know what is going to happen in Montreal, and I don’t know what is going to happen in San Francisco, but I sure as hell know what happened here (in New York) and Philadelphia,” Lasorda said.


So do the Giants.