Dave Roberts fumbled for the words, searching for a way to explain the ending to this night. The game stunned him. It exhausted him. It left him, after a 3-2 loss in 11 innings to the Padres, the manager of a Dodgers team with a losing record (21-23), a four-game winless streak and a sudden flair for creative defeats.
“We’re finding different ways to lose games,” Roberts said. “I hadn’t seen this one. So . . . yeah. It’s a tough one, and to try to defend it and find an answer, I’m having a hard time.”
A night after Kenley Jansen blew his first save of 2016, a much less accomplished pitcher invited a Padres victory. Chin-hui Tsao, a 34-year-old reliever called up from the minors earlier this week, walked the final three batters of the game. He created the rarest of indignities, a walk-off walk, and Roberts found himself at a loss.
“For any major-league pitcher to lose it like that, it’s a shock,” he said.
Instead, with the bases loaded and two out in the 11th, catcher A.J. Ellis tried to direct Tsao into the strike zone. Two sliders to backup infielder Yangervis Solarte missed. A fastball missed. A fourth fastball – mercifully, Tsao’s last pitch of the evening – missed outside. Ellis hopped up to protest the call with umpire Chris Guccione. Ellis knew he was making the gesture in vain.
“Those balls were clearly outside,” Ellis said. “I was just asking him to stand up for my team, fight a little bit right there. But in my heart, I knew the answer already.”
These are the Dodgers at this relatively early juncture of the season, a team tilting at windmills, shouting at clouds, unable to arrest a lengthy skid. The team has lost six of its last seven. Not even Clayton Kershaw can keep the group above the water of a .500 record.
The team’s lament is a classic one. When the hitters produce, the pitchers combust. When the pitchers shine, the hitters vanish. The second outcome occurred on Saturday, as Louis Coleman, Adam Liberatore, Joe Blanton and J.P. Howell combined for four scoreless innings before Tsao entered the fray.
Yet there was little offense of note. Trayce Thompson thumped a two-run home run in the seventh inning. The Dodgers did not collect another hit the rest of the night.
“It was a surprise to me,” Roberts said. “But our guys, they’re grinding, they’re getting after it. They’re not trying to make outs.”
But they did, over and over. A team with a losing record must search for silver linings, and Roberts saw one in his starting pitcher. Wood created some optimism as he bucked a trend of troubles on the road.
Wood showed no signs of homesickness. He struck out six in the first three innings, including a wipeout of the side in the third. He fanned former Dodger Matt Kemp with a curveball in the fourth, and flung another curve past Melvin Upton, Jr., to end the inning.
Upton shattered the Dodgers on Friday night. His walk-off home run was the first Jansen had given up in his career. Upton cost the team a theoretically uplifting victory, one powered by Justin Turner’s go-ahead homer in the eighth inning.
Roberts checked in on Jansen on Saturday afternoon to gauge his mood. He found his closer upbeat and hungry for another save opportunity. In order to get there, of course, the Dodgers actually needed to procure a lead. To procure a lead, the offense needed to score runs.
Wood showcased his arsenal again in the bottom of the fifth. Guccione rung up third baseman Brett Wallace on a low fastball. Alexei Ramirez, San Diego’s free-swinging shortstop, flailed at a changeup away. Wood finished up striking out the side by pumping a 91-mph fastball past second baseman Adam Rosales.
“He’s just been getting better as the season’s gone on,” said catcher Yasmani Grandal, whose X-rays came back negative after he fouled a ball off his ankle during extra innings and left the game. “I was pretty excited when I saw him throw for the first time in spring training. I know he’s got it in him. It’s just a matter of, ‘How do we get it out?’”
In the sixth, Wood issued a one-out walk to outfielder Jon Jay, who declined to swing at a full-count curveball in the dirt. Jay raced to third when first baseman Wil Myers singled up the middle. Wood hunched at the waist and dangled in his arms, his body language conveying a sense of exasperation.
Up came Kemp. He looked lost on a pair of pitches, missing a changeup and checking his swing too late on a curveball. But he managed to lift a 1-2 fastball into right field. Yasiel Puig settled underneath the ball, but his throw to the plate was not close. Jay scored the game’s first run.
The Dodgers’ bats awoke, at last, in the seventh. Adrian Gonzalez led off with his second single of the night. Thompson jumped on a 1-2 fastball. His seventh homer of the season cleared the fence in right-center field, driven by opposite-field strength.
A bullpen battle commenced. In the 11th, Roberts turned to Tsao. Myers led off with a single. Upton crushed a ball into left field, a towering drive that Thompson traced down at the base of the wall. “Wow,” Upton said as he headed back to the dugout, deflated by the combination of this park’s dimensions and this city’s marine layer.
“In my head right there, I’m thinking maybe we dodged a bullet, and we were going to get out of that inning,” Ellis said.
Instead, the bitterness of the night only increased. Tsao threw 14 more pitches. Only two were strikes. After the last ball, he stood on the lip of the mound as Ellis, and then Roberts, argued with Guccione. Their futile cries heard, the pair headed back into the clubhouse. Tsao soon joined them.
And so Roberts gathered himself in the visiting manager’s office. He gazed over his lineup card as he answered questions about the latest defeat. He tried to find an answer, when he knew there was none.
“We’ve got to keep going,” Roberts said. “That’s my message to them, and to the coaching staff. No one said it was going to be easy.”
Follow Andy McCullough on Twitter: @McCulloughTimes