Bullpen falters in seventh inning

Bullpen falters in seventh inning

ATLANTA -- Desperate for a power-hitting third baseman this season, the Dodgers suddenly found themselves with two of them on Sunday.

Andy LaRoche, promoted before the game for his Major League debut, started a fifth-inning rally with his first hit, a ground-rule double. The third baseman that LaRoche displaced, Wilson Betemit, came off the bench with his second pinch-homer in as many games.

But neither could prevent the bullpen's first meltdown of the year, a 6-4 loss in which the Braves scored five runs in the bottom of the seventh inning against Chin-hui Tsao and Chad Billingsley.

"I knew we were due. That's just the way the game is," said veteran Jeff Kent, whose 0-for-4 was part of an 0-for-14 by the top four in the Dodgers' batting order. "They had a lot of cheap hits, so many I couldn't count, and we did a lot of things right. Sometimes, it's not what you do right. There's a lot of fortune in this game, and it's frustrating that you can't always control fortune."

With a three-run lead and their deep bullpen, the Dodgers appeared to be golden when it all unraveled. They had escaped a sixth-inning jam left over by starter Randy Wolf, when Rudy Seanez got an inning-ending double-play grounder from Chris Woodward.

Betemit then extended a 2-1 lead to 4-1 with his second blast of the series against his former club.

Manager Grady Little had already warmed up and sat down Joe Beimel the previous inning and had no reason to shy away from Tsao, who was working on some kind of perfect game, having retired the last 24 batters he faced and pitched scoreless -- and nearly hitless -- baseball all season.

But Tsao walked pinch-hitter Willie Harris leading off the bottom of the seventh, then allowed back-to-back doubles to Kelly Johnson and Edgar Renteria. Scott Thorman's pinch-single tied the game, and Little went with Billingsley, who allowed decisive singles to Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Woodward.

"It's always tough to let one slip away at the end of the game," said Little. "We've gotten spoiled this season with the bullpen; they've been lights-out every time. Tonight showed we're human out there."

Tsao was throwing hard and said he couldn't pinpoint anything he was doing differently.

"I try my best every pitch, but they still hit it," said the right-hander, showing no effects from the nearly two years he spent with the Rockies sidelined by shoulder problems. "It's going to happen. I felt the same, the same location and movement. Everything great. It's just one day, I hope."

Saltalamacchia had an edge on Billingsley when he delivered the go-ahead hit.

"I caught Chad growing up," he said of his Team USA teammate. "So I knew he had a hard fastball and good stuff. So I was just sitting on a hard fastball and was able to do something with it."

It was only the bullpen's second loss this year, and it cost the Dodgers the rubber game of the series after they lost to John Smoltz and beat Tim Hudson.

"That's the best pitching staff I've seen, and I dare say probably the best pitching staff in the National League," said Chipper Jones, who was ejected by umpire Bob Davidson for arguing a check-swing third strike during the winning rally. "They pitched me about as good as you can possibly pitch me. Everything was at the knees, at the corner. Everything had movement. It was an impressive display of pitching."

Betemit put on an impressive display of power, ironic in that he lost his job to LaRoche because he hadn't come close to anything like this all year. He became the first Dodgers hitter since Todd Benzinger in 1992 to hit pinch-homers in consecutive at-bats, although it's too late for Betemit to save his starting job, which for now is LaRoche's.

The rookie went 1-for-4 in his Major League debut, the hit a one-out double that started a two-run fifth inning. He scored on Andre Ethier's single and nearly had another extra-base hit when a seventh-inning liner took off and required a leaping catch by Matt Diaz in left.

LaRoche, playing on fumes after being too excited to sleep on a red-eye flight from California, also handled a grounder and liner hit his way.

"The kid had a good game his first game," said Little. "He looked good out there."

LaRoche said he controlled his emotions by treating the game like any other, even if this one had relatives fly in to attend.

"I just stayed relaxed," said the brother of former Braves and current Pirates first baseman Adam LaRoche. "It was just another game, like I've been playing my whole life."

Wolf, experiencing his customary early-inning difficulties, said he was frustrated he couldn't pitch deeper into the game. It was his shortest outing as a Dodger, one out less than his previous start, even though he threw 107 pitches.

"By now, it's got to be mental," said Wolf, who had the same problem with the Phillies. "[Pitching coach Rick Honeycutt] suggested I take hitters when I warm up before the game and get guys swinging, and get the first inning out of the way in the bullpen."

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