On Wednesday afternoon, as the Dodgers lounged before a game at PNC Park, Yasiel Puig offered a challenge to Kenley Jansen: a six-figure sum if Jansen could solve a Rubik’s Cube lying around the visitor’s clubhouse. The wager was not serious; Jansen still pondered it as Puig left the room. “I have until the ninth inning,” Jansen mused.
A day later, in the eighth inning of an 8-7 victory over the Pirates, Jansen confronted a different sort of puzzle. The Dodgers needed him to collect the final five outs of a game that had exhausted an already depleted bullpen. Handcuffed by a last-minute injury to rookie starting pitcher Dennis Santana, manager Dave Roberts called on nine relievers in Thursday’s series finale.
Jansen was the last to arrive. He came to the mound moments after Brock Stewart, who was pitching for the second day in a row, surrendered a three-run home run that cut the lead to two. Jansen gave up a solo homer in the ninth to Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli but finished the save as the Dodgers (31-31) completed this 5-1 road trip.
“I’m gassed,” pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said. “And I didn’t even pitch.”
The relievers combined to throw 173 pitches Thursday — after entering in the second inning of Wednesday’s loss. They arrived even earlier Thursday after Santana was diagnosed with soreness in his right lat muscle.
It was typical of this trip. In six games, a Dodgers starting pitcher did not last longer than the fifth inning. The bullpen absorbed 35 2/3 innings. The schedule does not grace the Dodgers with a day off on Friday. They will host the Atlanta Braves instead.
“I know we have a starter going tomorrow,” Roberts said. “We’ll figure it out, somehow.”
Despite the workload, the bullpen suppressed Pittsburgh’s lineup enough as the Dodgers offense came to life. Joc Pederson swatted a pair of home runs, which gave him five on this trip, a flurry which followed a 53-game stretch in which he hit just one.
Pederson started the game with a homer. After the lineup manufactured runs in the fourth and fifth innings, Puig delivered a pinch-hit RBI double in the sixth. Cody Bellinger homered for the third day in a row, this time a two-run shot in the seventh. Pederson launched another two-run blast in the eighth. His on-base plus slugging percentage rose from .718 to .857 during these six games.
“I feel good,” Pederson said. “I think I’d been [a jerk] to say I didn’t feel locked in.”
The road trip began with a game started by a reliever at Coors Field, part of an effort to ease Santana’s transition into the majors by letting him make his debut in relief. The team expected Santana to make his first start Thursday, but his arm did not cooperate.
The Dodgers understood the potential peril in relying on a pair of rookies — Santana and Caleb Ferguson — in this series. But it could not have gone much worse: Ferguson could not finish the second inning Wednesday, and Santana never made it to the mound.
When Santana warmed up Thursday, he was still nursing his lat muscle from his outing at Coors Field. He had been unable to throw his slider. Santana threw 29 pitches in the bullpen. His last was a slider. As he walked toward catcher Yasmani Grandal, Santana relayed his discomfort. He will undergo an examination Friday.
“I felt uncomfortable because of the situation we’re in with all the injuries, everyone on the D.L.,” Santana said through his interpreter, Jesus Quinonez. “This was my opportunity to go out there and do what I know best.”
During the national anthem, Honeycutt called the dugout. Roberts answered and absorbed the news. Turmoil reigned inside the clubhouse. The training staff tried to figure out what was wrong with Santana. The relievers scrambled toward the bullpen. Daniel Hudson already was out there; Roberts scanned the Pirates lineup and chose him as the first man up.
“You’ve just got to strap it on and get ready to go,” Hudson said.
Hudson had started only once since 2012, the year he underwent his first elbow ligament reconstruction. He required a revision a year later and remodeled himself as a reliever. He had thrown 4 1/3 innings in the previous five days, including a four-out stint Wednesday. After inheriting a lead courtesy of Pederson, Hudson retired the side in the bottom of the first.
Scott Alexander handled the next inning. The relievers did not allow a hit until Pedro Baez yielded a leadoff single in the third. Baez gave up another hit, a well-placed bunt single by second baseman Josh Harrison, before outfielder Gregory Polanco tied the game with a sacrifice fly.
The Dodgers produced runs in the fourth, fifth and sixth. The bottom of the sixth was torture for Roberts and his relievers. Into the fray came Josh Fields, who had pitched the night before. He walked the leadoff hitter and surrendered an RBI double to Pirates first baseman Josh Bell. Roberts then sent Edward Paredes to face left-handed-hitting outfielder Josh Dickerson; Dickerson struck out.
When Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle used David Freese, a right-handed batter, as a pinch-hitter, Roberts elected to play matchup baseball. He chose Erik Goeddel as his third reliever of the inning and the seventh of the game. Goeddel gave up a single on a swinging bunt, and a run soon scored on a sacrifice fly.
“We could have extended Edward a little bit there,” Roberts said. “But you’re also trying to win a major league game.”
The Dodgers rebuilt their cushion with two swings from Bellinger and Pederson. Bellinger teed off on a hanging curveball from Pirates reliever Tyler Glasnow in the seventh. An inning later, Pederson offered similar treatment for reliever Michael Feliz. When Feliz flipped a slider over the middle, Pederson bashed it beyond the center-field fence.
The five-run advantage shriveled to two when Pirates catcher Elias Diaz took Stewart deep in the eighth. Cervelli put a scare in Jansen, but the closer still collected his 15th save to finish one of the strangest days of the season.
As Jansen spoke to reporters after the game, the Rubik’s Cube sat on a table, unsolved. At least the trip was over.
“Give credit to the bullpen guys,” Jansen said. “We kept our head in the game, and we kept it close.”