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Dodgers counting on bullpen to dominate

Dodgers counting on bullpen to dominate

LOS ANGELES -- There's a blueprint to beating the Dodgers, and it's pretty simple.

You'd better get your runs early in the game. Because if the Dodgers hold a lead heading into the later innings -- even if it's as small as a single run -- chances are it's lights out, game over, try again next time.

That's the reality teams face against the Dodgers' bullpen -- the most consistently dominant group in the Majors.

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Dodgers relievers have combined to produce a 3.11 ERA this season -- best in baseball -- in 513 innings pitched.

They're also the main reason the club boasts the top mark in the National League and a record of 65-8 when leading at the start of the seventh inning.

Like a python that slowly wraps itself around its prey and suffocates it to a silent death, Dodgers relievers inflict similar suffering on opposing teams as they extinguish any hopes for a comeback.

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Dodgers at a glance
2009 record: 95-67
2008 record: 84-78
NL West champs
NL best record
NLCS matchup:
Phillies at Dodgers
Postseason tix: Buy now

WHO ARE THESE GUYS?
Loney: Taking good swings
Kuo: Long road back
Thome: Back in Philly
Loney: Building resume
Bullpen: Led by Broxton
Torre: Rep precedes him
Blake: Chemistry guy
Kershaw: Game 1 nod?
Dodgers: Eyes on prize
Kemp: Path of the pros
Furcal: Back healthy
Kershaw: Like Koufax
Hudson: Keeping head up
Billingsley: Unknown role
Ethier: Slump over
Torre: Tough decisions
Kershaw: Elite comparisons
Kemp: Nearly elite
Kershaw: Path to the pros
Billingsley: Fate in balance
Ethier: Aims to improve
Torre: Back to playoffs
Kershaw: Ready to rock
Rotation: Plenty of options
Kemp: Chasing LA history
Bullpen: Dominant pair
Honeycutt: Pitching guru
Kemp: Tools to match talent
Ethier: Walk-off wonder
Billingsley: Vying for spot
Ethier/Kemp: Dynamic duo
Torre: Another pennant race
Pierre: Receives high praise
Kershaw: Beyond his years

And no two guys are more responsible for the Dodgers' success in the late innings than setup man George Sherrill and closer Jonathan Broxton.

What makes the Sherrill-Broxton duo different from others is that both pitchers have experience as closers, as Sherill filled the role for the Baltimore Orioles prior to his July 30 trade to the Dodgers.

It's a rare situation for a manager, and one that affords manager Joe Torre the luxury of throwing two men out there who know how to get the toughest outs in baseball.

"I don't think I've ever had two closers," Torre said Sunday. "It solves the problem of the eighth inning. Now you get through the sixth inning [and] you're OK because you've got a guy named [Hong-Chi] Kuo out there, who's pretty versatile in that you don't care if it's lefty or righty with him, either. "

The big story, though, is the trend of scoreless eighth and ninth innings that has been as dependable as it gets since Sherrill's arrival.

Since joining the Dodgers, Sherrill has posted some eye-opening numbers.

In 24 appearances (22 1/3 innings pitched), Sherrill has allowed only one run on 15 hits -- good for a 0.40 ERA, full two runs lower than his mark earlier this season with the Orioles.

While it's been documented that pitchers often enjoy a statistical bump when leaving the American League for the pitcher-friendly NL, it can't automatically be used to explain Sherrill's success with the Dodgers, as NL relievers don't often face pitchers.

Sherrill said that he didn't know that his ERA was as low as it is, but admitted he knows when he's in a groove.

"You know if you're doing well or not," he said. "I think I feel the best that I've felt all year."

Torre has noticed it, too.

"You see how consistent and how efficient he's been. But the fact that he's been a closer keeps you from concerning yourself about matchups too much."

Torre uses the example of a recent game against the Pirates when he opted for the left-handed Sherrill against two right-handed batters who had feasted on lefties.

"He comes in there and dispatches those two guys," Torre said. "It took him longer to get rid of the left-hander than it did the two right-handers."

Torre's ability to rely on Sherrill regardless of who's in the batter's box lets Broxton concentrate on the ninth and not worry about having to come into games in the eighth for longer saves.

Take away a rough early August when he gave up five runs in a four-game stretch, and Broxton has been on a tear since teaming up with Sherrill.

He hasn't given up an earned run in his past 19 innings. Over that span, Broxton has struck out 31 batters, walked five and allowed just 10 hits.

After reflecting on the subject for about 10 seconds, Broxton said that one of the things he's improved this year is throwing first-pitch strikes.

A one-strike count opens up Broxton's arsenal to where he can vary between his high-octane fastball and his devastating slider to get batters out.

"It's just somehow working out to where I'm going out there and getting strike one," Broxton said. "You've got a whole lot more things you can do instead of falling behind 1-0, 2-1, stuff like that."

All those first-pitch strikes have resulted in 109 strikeouts this season -- most of any reliever -- and have left quite the impression on his new teammate.

"I've been around Felix [Hernandez], but it's just different stuff," Sherrill said. "Nobody that can touch 100 mph and then can have a slider 89-90 mph, whatever it is, that just falls off the table."

That kind of stuff, when juxtaposed against Sherrill's 90-mph fastball, creates another conundrum for opponents.

Sherrill establishes one rhythm in the eighth that the players lock into from the batter's box or the dugout, and then Broxton kicks it up a notch in the ninth.

And that's not even factoring all the other styles the Dodgers can throw at teams before they get to Sherrill or Broxton.

"You've got [Ronald] Bellisario coming in throwing about 96-plus with sink," Sherrill said. "Then you've got [Ramon] Troncoso coming in there throwing 94-95 mph with a pretty good breaking ball. Kuo can run it up there pretty good, and then Brox has just got the best out pitch of all of us. So it's a pretty good bullpen. "

And one that the Dodgers will depend on heavily if they advance to postseason play.

David Ely is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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