Column: Dodgers using Scott Elbert in key spot is one for the birds

Dodgers reliever Scott Elbert delivers a pitch during the seventh inning of a 3-1 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 3 of the National League division series on Monday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The richest sports payroll in history is now one loss from a second consecutive postseason elimination after trying to win a game with a $240-million question.

Scott Elbert?

In the seventh inning of a tie score in a tied division series with the St. Louis Cardinals on Monday night at thunderous Busch Stadium, the Dodgers chose to place the most tense moment of their season on the shoulders of an injury-plagued, minor league veteran pitcher whose only major league appearances this season occurred during games with an average margin of six runs.

Scott Elbert?

Don Mattingly not only removed starter Hyun-Jin Ryu even though he had given up only one run on 94 pitches and wanted to keep working, but he replaced him with a 29-year-old pitcher who had a 4.91 earned-run average in 18 appearances at triple-A Albuquerque and had worked only one career postseason inning, which led to another question.


Kolten Wong?

After giving up a double to Yadier Molina on his first pitch, Elbert gave up a sacrifice bunt by Jon Jay on his second pitch, and on his third pitch a booming two run home run to right field to second baseman Wong, who was one for six in the series, to drag the Dodgers to a 3-1 defeat.

And now the final question is, Clayton Kershaw?

The Dodgers trail the Cardinals 2-1 in a best-of-five National League division series and need to win Tuesday’s Game 4 to stay alive. They will send their ace, Kershaw, to the mound to get them that win even though he will be pitching on three days’ rest, instead of the usual four, for the first time this season.

This will be the second straight postseason that Kershaw will be asked to save the Dodgers’ season at Busch Stadium. Last year, he failed miserably, giving up seven runs in four innings in the Cardinals clinching win in the NL Championship Series. Last week he also failed miserably, giving up eight runs in 6 2/3 innings in the series opener.

This time his challenge is even more difficult, not only because of the short rest, but because of the horrific bullpen that will be surely needed because Kershaw will probably not be able to throw his usual 100-plus pitches.

Asked before Monday’s game about worries over the short rest, the Dodgers manager announced, “It’s Clayton Kershaw.’'

Then Mattingly went out and tried to win a game with Scott Elbert.

It’s hard to blame Mattingly because he is not the one who put together a bullpen that has lately been bad from the moment its gates have opened. In each of the three playoff games, the first Dodgers reliever has given up a crushing home run, which is surely sort of a record.

First Pedro Baez was lit up, then J.P. Howell was torched, and when Mattingly looked down there before the seventh inning Monday, he wanted to try something different. Anything different.

“Scotty is a lefty that gives us some angle,’' Mattingly said. “We wanted to give him a different look.’'

Some angle? That angle was soon pointing skyward as Wong drilled the home run and danced around first base as the Busch Stadium crowd roared in surprise. Here’s guessing Dodgers fans were not so surprised, considering they have long worried that General Manager Ned Colletti did not put together a competent postseason bullpen.

Even though Elbert struck out both Cardinals he faced in a brief appearance when the Dodgers trailed by four runs in the series opener, he should never be in a position to shoulder the burden of a tight postseason game. But clearly, with almost no trustworthy arms in the bullpen, Mattingly felt he had few other options.

“When we decided to put him on the postseason roster, he’s there to get lefties out,’' Mattingly said.

In other words, if Elbert is in the bullpen, Mattingly is pitching him. The reason Elbert is in the bullpen is the root cause of Monday’s problem, and a question that Guggenheim Baseball Management will surely be addressing when the season ends.

All this money and they can’t get anybody to pitch the seventh inning?

Mattingly and catcher A.J. Ellis defended taking Ryu out of the game, as there was concern for injury after he sat out the last three weeks because of shoulder irritation.

Said Mattingly: “We thought going five would be good.’'

Said Ellis: “Given the long layoff and the way he threw the ball for 18 huge outs for us, Hyun-Jin did his job. Tough spot to ask that guy after that long of a break to go out any longer.’'

The lousy bullpen puts an undue strain on everyone, causing second guessing everywhere, and Monday night it unfairly left the loss in the hands of a guy who had no business being anywhere near this game, yet who will pay its price forever.

“You’ve got to be prepared for everything ... unfortunately it didn’t go my way,’' Elbert said, shaking his head. “I’m just going out there trying to get guys out.’'

Why the Dodgers don’t have someone to do that in the late innings is a simple question with a two-part answer. Colletti made what turned out to be bad signings of Brian Wilson and Brandon League, then over the summer would not, or could not, give up the prospects required to acquire someone like Andrew Miller, a former Boston reliever who has been a big factor on the Baltimore Orioles.

The situation is a mess. And if the Dodgers don’t survive this first round, expect it to get even messier.