Brazoban, Dodgers fall on late slam

Brazoban, Dodgers fall on late slam

LOS ANGELES -- The description "rookie closer" is something of an oxymoron in baseball, and this is why.

When a rookie becomes a closer, it is out of necessity and it often isn't pretty, as the Dodgers witnessed again Wednesday night when Yhency Brazoban allowed a grand slam to Ryan Howard in the ninth inning, turning a tie game into a 9-5 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies.

A night earlier, rookie Steve Schmoll served up back-to-back homers to Pat Burrell and Howard to let a lead and a game get away. With Eric Gagne out for the season and the bullpen loaded with inexperience, another frustrating loss prevented the Dodgers from gaining a game on the first-place San Diego Padres.

Jeff Kent, who followed up his four strikeouts Tuesday night with a first-inning three-run homer in this game, said such letdowns are understandable under current circumstances.

"It's just what we've got," he said about the rookies. "It's hard for young kids to be consistent. That's not a knock on their talent. But until they're veterans, meaning five years or more, it's hard for them to be consistent every day. The way we're made up, because of injuries, you just go with what you've got. These aren't excuses. You just do the best you can.

"Being consistent is what we need to be. These guys know that. They're trying to be, giving it the best we've got. So far, it's not good enough for the division."

The last month has been particularly challenging for Brazoban, who came into this season with only 160 professional innings, without a full season at any Minor League level, or an off-speed pitch.

For frame of reference, Gagne had 780 professional innings when he became the Dodgers closer, roughly five times as much. He had already learned to overcome struggling, not in the bright lights of a Major League pennant race, but in the obscurity of San Antonio and Albuquerque and Las Vegas.

Brazoban isn't so lucky. Howard hit the first Brazoban pitch he saw, a 95-mph fastball, and it landed 458 feet away. It apparently looked exactly like the only other pitch Howard's seen from Brazoban, also a 95-mph fastball that he turned around for a walk-off home run in Philadelphia on July 19. Two pitches, two homers, six RBIs.

Although Brazoban broke Steve Howe's 25-year-old club record for rookie saves (now 21), he's also lost seven games and his ERA has swelled to 6.46. Since July 8, he's lost as many games as he's saved (five).

Oddly, for the first six weeks of the season, when Gagne was disabled the first time, Brazoban was lights out, converting 11-of-12 save opportunities with a 1.88 ERA. Returned to the setup role, he was scored upon his first three appearances and really hasn't been the same, even though he's racked up another 10 saves since Gagne went down for good.

Brazoban's ERA since Gagne returned is 8.53. With the 10 saves since then, he's also blown three chances and suffered all seven losses.

As is his custom, Brazoban left the clubhouse Wednesday night before reporters arrived and was unavailable.

His teammates spoke for him, specifically Derek Lowe, who was a young closer with Boston before becoming a starter.

"It's our job to continue to support [the young relievers]," said Lowe, who allowed a first-inning homer to Bobby Abreu, but tried a new grip that relieved pressure on his thumb blister and lasted six innings. "Tonight, I could have pitched better and maybe the game would have been different.

"Brazie's a young kid. He's learning how to play the game, yet he's trying to win at the same time. Obviously, we're struggling, but the last thing you want is guys pointing fingers. It's tough. There's no worse feeling than being on the road and giving up a walk-off homer. Sometimes when kids struggle, they lose confidence. They don't have the experience of coming back from tough times."

Brazoban made his job tough before the home run. He hit Chase Utley with his first pitch, then Utley took advantage of Brazoban's inability to hold runners on by stealing second. Abreu was walked intentionally, then Burrell was walked unintentionally to load the bases for Howard.

"He's obviously the right guy for that inning," said manager Jim Tracy, who used Schmoll (5.40 ERA) and 21-year-old rookie Jonathan Broxton (10.80 ERA) the night before, and Duaner Sanchez for two innings before Brazoban. "He's done a terrific job up to this point."

The Dodgers wasted Kent's homer and an active game from Milton Bradley, who tied it in the fifth inning with a two-run homer, walked twice and made a run-saving diving catch in center field. Bradley earlier in the day visited the cancer ward Children's Hospital, where a patient asked him to, "Hit a bomb for me tonight."

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.