The Dodgers bullpen didn’t breed any angst Wednesday night in the last game of a season-opening homestand. It didn’t squander a lead or toy with danger. Scott Alexander, Caleb Ferguson and Kenley Jansen combined to pitch 2⅔ scoreless innings in a 5-3 win over the San Francisco Giants. They took the baton from starter Ross Stripling, watched their relentless offense come back to seize the lead, and slammed the door as the Dodgers improved to 5-2. It was a noteworthy step in the right direction.
Seven games comprise about 4% of a 162-game baseball season. Culling a bullpen’s performance from that tiny sample size to make declarations is rash. Relievers, year-to-year, are as volatile as any other segment of a baseball roster. Within a season, one bad inning can, for weeks, skew the back-of-the-baseball-card statistics ingrained in the sport.
But seven games are seven games and the Dodgers bullpen was ineffective for most of them. They’ve allowed 19 runs, tied for the third-most in the major leagues entering Thursday’s day off. Both losses featured a bullpen collapse -- specifically, a Joe Kelly collapse. Tuesday’s victory included a near meltdown in the ninth inning, salvaged when Corey Seager and Enrique Hernandez turned a difficult double play to end the game.
Struggles have been widespread. Kelly, who signed a three-year, $25-million deal as the Dodgers’ only major bullpen addition, has allowed six runs in three innings, Brock Stewart has given up five in 3⅓ innings, Yimi Garcia has surrendered four in three innings, and Pedro Baez has been charged with four runs in 3⅔ innings.
On Wednesday, hours before his bullpen didn’t surrender a run in a game for the first time this season, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts expressed confidence in his relief corps.
“I think with all of our guys, probably outside of Brock, you can point to their track record,” Roberts said. “Brock hasn’t had that much opportunity in his big league career, but Caleb in his small sample size has performed in big spots, and all the other guys have as well.”
Roberts acknowledged the onus on the bullpen has been greater than expected after Walker Buehler, who made just one Cactus League start, was slotted for five innings but didn’t get an out in the fourth before Julio Urias, whom the Dodgers are handling cautiously, was limited to five innings despite needing just 77 pitches to hold the Giants scoreless. As a result, the bullpen’s 27⅔ innings ranked sixth in baseball entering Thursday.
Help is on the way. Once Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill come off the injured list and join the starting rotation, Urias and Ross Stripling will shift to the bullpen. Urias will make the move first. His scheduled start Sunday against the Colorado Rockies could be his last before Kershaw is activated.
Kershaw made a rehab start for triple-A Oklahoma City on Thursday. If the Dodgers decide he doesn’t need another one, he could join the team as early as next week in St. Louis. Hill is behind in his recovery from a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee. He is scheduled to throw a bullpen session Saturday in Denver.
The Dodgers will use Urias as a reliever to control his innings two years after the left-hander underwent surgery to repair the anterior capsule in his left shoulder. Roberts said he envisions the 22-year-old Urias logging multiple innings at a time and sometimes finishing games if others aren’t available. The thinking is that limiting his workload through the summer will allow the Dodgers to utilize Urias, perhaps as a starter, down the stretch and into the playoffs.
Until then, Urias could boost the bullpen with his electric, four-pitch mix. For now, the Dodgers’ eight-man crew will strive to make the season’s first week an outlier.
“It’s a long season,” Jansen said. “We just got to continue to battle and understand that when we get this thing locked in and just have a lockdown bullpen, this team is going to get as far as it has to go again. Our bullpen is key, is big for this team. And we’re going to get this right.”