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Dodgers need middle-relief consistency

Dodgers need middle-relief consistency

PHOENIX -- As the non-waiver Trade Deadline approached last year and the baseball world speculated on which starting pitcher the Dodgers would acquire, the first trade general manager Ned Colletti made landed Orioles closer George Sherrill.

So it shouldn't be a great surprise that while the Dodgers are presumed to be on the lookout for starting pitching again this summer, Colletti has acknowledged that he's expanded his search to include relief pitching.

That doesn't mean the Dodgers are worried about closer Jonathan Broxton after Sunday's 48-pitch blown save or supreme setup man Hong-Chih Kuo because of his unpredictable elbow.

It does mean that some of their bullpen mates haven't been as reliable as they were last season. And with the comforting recent returns from the disabled list of Opening Day starter Vicente Padilla and Chad Billingsley, a starting rotation that includes Clayton Kershaw, Hiroki Kuroda and rookie John Ely isn't looking so bad.

Middle relief, however, is another story. Jeff Weaver has been reliable, and if Rule 5 rookie Carlos Monasterios, currently on a rehab assignment for a finger blister, returns throwing strikes, that will help. Ronald Belisario struggled after being late to the party, proving the importance of Spring Training, but his sinker is nasty again now. Sherrill has been a season-long enigma and Justin Miller has been a useful stop-gap lately along with callups Jon Link and Travis Schlichting.

Perhaps most important would be a return to last year's form for Ramon Troncoso. Middle relief ground-ball specialists like Troncoso don't star on the nightly highlight shows or draw the attention of fantasy managers, but they are huge for Major League managers like Joe Torre.

A year ago when the bullpen was the Dodgers' greatest weapon, Troncoso was the kind of reliever Torre loves -- efficient and durable. In 41 games before the All-Star break, Troncoso had a 1.75 ERA. On the season, his 72 appearances matched Broxton. He even came through six of the seven times Torre presented him with a save opportunity. And in 16 games working without any rest, he allowed one run in 18 innings.

This year, Troncoso's statistics look like they belong to someone else. In a team-high 37 appearances, his ERA is 5.45. After allowing three home runs all last year, he's already allowed six this season.

Torre's critics have long accused him of abusing effective middle relievers like Troncoso and point to the 15 appearances Troncoso made in April, when Kuo began the season on the disabled list, Belisario was on the restricted list after arriving late to Spring Training and Torre relied on Troncoso because of last season's success.

A year ago, with Kuo available and Belisario bursting on the scene, Troncoso made only eight April appearances.

Troncoso dismisses the notion of overuse.

"I feel perfect, I feel brand new, like a baby with a new toy," Troncoso said. "My arm is good. I'm here to pitch every day. I'm going to pitch in 50 more games this year. Of course this year has been frustrating for me, but if we win, everything is OK. I don't care about my ERA, I just want to pitch good and help the team."

Bullpen coach Ken Howell said Troncoso's problems this year are part mechanical, which he's cautiously optimistic have been worked out, and partly pitch selection and execution.

"He's been throwing the curveball instead of the sinker in some situations, and the sinker is his money pitch," said Howell. "And he needs to be at the bottom of the [strike] zone. When he's thigh-high and up, he gets in trouble. His stuff is fine, but he's not pounding the bottom of the zone with the consistency of last year. But lately it's been better."

There were four ground balls by four batters Wednesday in San Francisco that had Troncoso looking just like last season. It's not as eye-popping as when Broxton and Kuo light up the radar gun, but it's exactly the result the Dodgers are looking for.

"He's just got to develop the thought process of what kind of pitcher he is and use that sinker when the situation calls for it," said pitching coach Rick Honeycutt. "A lot of it is focus and thought process. Pitch selection and pitch purpose and not just throwing. It's all part of maturing as a pitcher."

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

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