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A Return to Scene of Bullpen Crime

Three Rivers Stadium, where the Dodgers will be spending the next four days, should hold pleasant memories for the team considering the Dodgers won five of six games there last season and are 13-5 in Three Rivers over the last three seasons.

But the memory of the one loss the team suffered on the Pirates’ diamond last season may override all of the recent good times because it was so jarring and so prophetic.

It was the second game of a doubleheader played in late August after the Dodgers had won the first game, 8-2.

They were leading, 3-1, in the bottom of the ninth inning of the nightcap with reliever Todd Worrell on the mound. Worrell walked the leadoff batter, then gave up home runs on successive pitches to Joe Randa and Mark Smith, neither of whom expects to ever be mentioned in the same breath with Roger Maris.

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About that time last season, people were mentioning Worrell in the same breath with words such as washed up and choke.

That loss was the most glaring example of a disastrous breakdown, by Worrell in particular and the Dodger bullpen in general, a key factor in the team’s late-season collapse.

Worrell is now retired. And the Dodgers have yet to designate one man to succeed him as the closer.

But it’s certainly not from a lack of candidates in a bullpen that has made a dramatic turnaround. The winning run surrendered to the Milwaukee Brewers on Monday night by reliever Frank Lankford ended a 34-inning scoreless streak by the Dodger bullpen. Dodger relievers have a combined 0.66 earned-run average over their last 20 games. Their season bullpen ERA of 1.64 was second best in the majors as of Tuesday behind that of the San Francisco Giants. Dodger reliever Brad Clontz has not yielded a hit in his last 11 2/3 innings, and fellow reliever Mark Guthrie has not yielded a run in his last 10 1/3 innings.

As they return to Pittsburgh, the Dodgers do so with a bullpen that may have been transformed from the weakest link in their chain to the strongest.

ON DECK

* Opponent--Pittsburgh Pirates, four games.

* Site--Three Rivers Stadium.

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* Tonight--4 PDT.

* TV--Fox Sports West tonight, Channel 5 Saturday and Sunday.

* Radio--AM 1150, KWKW (1330).

* Records--Dodgers 13-12, Pirates 11-15.

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* 1997 record vs. Pittsburgh--9-2.

DODGERS’ ISMAEL VALDES (2-3, 4.60 ERA)

vs.

PIRATES JASON SCHMIDT (3-1, 5.28 ERA)

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* Update--This is the opener of not only a four-game series, but an 11-game trip, to be played in as many days with additional stops in Atlanta for three and Miami for four. The Dodgers have won only four of 13 away from home; Pittsburgh is 6-6 at Three Rivers.

* Friday 4 p.m. PDT--Darren Dreifort (0-1, 2.52) vs. Esteban Loaiza (1-1, 5.33).

* Saturday 4 p.m. PDT--Ramon Martinez (2-2, 3.15) vs. Jon Lieber (1-3, 5.17).

* Sunday 10:30 a.m. PDT--Chan Ho Park (2-0, 4.60) vs. Jose Silva (2-2, 3.94).

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