Dodgers suffer slump as bullpen shots result in loss to Reds

Dodgers'  Freddie Freeman watches his grand slam against the Cincinnati Reds.
The Dodgers’ Freddie Freeman watches his grand slam in the fourth inning against the Cincinnati Reds in Cincinnati on Tuesday. (Aaron Doster/Associated Press)

The Dodgers thought they were past that point. That their once struggling bullpen was finally becoming a strength.

A glaring weakness at the start of the season, the team’s relief corps had seemed to take a turn in May.

Yes, Evan Phillips has returned to his dominant form. But just as importantly, Caleb Ferguson, Brusdar Graterol and Yency Almonte have emerged as reliable high-leverage options, giving the Dodgers a definite late-inning hierarchy to trust when trying to close out games.

In recent weeks, however, performance has plummeted. The inconsistency is back.

And in a 9-8 loss to the Cincinnati Reds on Tuesday night — a loss in which the Dodgers squandered a five-point lead, punctuated by Ferguson’s three-point save in the ninth — only one conclusion was clear:

The Dodgers bullpen is again a problem, with few obvious solutions other than internal improvements or external additions leading up to the trade deadline.

“It was tough,” manager Dave Roberts said. “With this group of weapons we have in the paddock, that shouldn’t happen.”

The Dodgers initially appeared headed for a series-opening victory at Great American Ball Park, leading 8-3 late in the fourth inning after a home run from JD Martinez and a grand slam from Freddie Freeman.

“Offensively, we scored enough runs to win a baseball game,” Roberts said.

But on the mound, an unusually shaky Dodgers pitching staff — which ranks 22nd in ERA so far this season — stumbled again.

Gonsolin only managed to complete five innings, unable to recover from the three-run lead he wasted in a bottom 24 pitches from first.

“I just fell behind early in the game,” said Gonsolin, who pitched after the fifth inning in just three of eight starts.

“What it does is,” Roberts later lamented, “is it exposes you in the bullpen.”

Exposed, the Dodgers relievers were indeed.

Almonte allowed one run on three hits in the sixth, raising his ERA for the season to 6.84. Graterol gave up another score in the seventh, the third straight outing in which he failed to post a zero.

Phillips was the only bright spot, taking the heart out of the Reds line-up in the eighth order.

But with their top reliever burned – Phillips wasn’t an option for a second inning due to his recent workload, Roberts said – the manager faced a ninth-inning decision while protecting an 8 lead. -6.

The Dodgers' Tony Gonsolin throws in the first inning against the Cincinnati Reds in Cincinnati.

Dodgers’ Tony Gonsolin throws in the first inning against the Cincinnati Reds in Cincinnati on Tuesday. (Aaron Doster/Associated Press)

Trust southpaw Ferguson against a string of right-handed Reds hitters down the order? Or summon Shelby Miller to set up right-to-right clashes?

“We rely on [Ferguson] to be a leverage guy regardless of maneuverability,” Roberts said, after picking the former. “I felt part of the command, he should be able to handle that.”

Instead, Ferguson’s command disappeared amid a late game rain.

He walked the first batter, then another with an out to load the bases.

“It accelerated for him,” said Roberts, who also believed a missed strike call frustrated the pitcher. “It’s just not an excuse to let it affect your performance. He clearly did that tonight.

Ferguson then forced a run home with another walk, before plunging Jake Fraley in his only left-on-left game with a wide 2-and-2 fastball to level the score at 8-8.

“I just have to throw better,” said Ferguson, who has now allowed six runs in his last four outings. “I was bad. I hope Doc keeps racing me there. I’ll find out, but at the end of the day, it comes back to me. I just have to be better.

Reds' Matt McLain celebrates after driving into the winning run with a single against the Dodgers.

Matt McLain of the Reds celebrates after driving into the winning run with a single against the Dodgers in the ninth inning. (Aaron Doster/Associated Press)

Miller eventually came in to face Matt McLain. But with the bases still loaded, McLain lifted a fly ball down the center for a game-ending scoreless single.

“This one stings,” Roberts said. “We should have won that game anyway.”

Instead, Roberts sat shaking his head after the game, short of answers for a bullpen that now ranks 26th in ERA, 23rd in walks and hits per inning and 26th in batting average against.

“They don’t throw the ball well,” Roberts said. “When you look over there, I can trust the guys, but it has to work both ways. The talent is there. But they must also do their part. Tonight is a night, we shouldn’t have lost this game.

All the blame was not on the bullpen.

Max Muncy acknowledged that the offense might have “slackened our foot a bit”. The third baseman was also in the middle of some key defensive errors.

Gonsolin’s short start didn’t help either, continuing a worrying trend from an average rotation of just five innings per start.

“Just overall,” Roberts said, “not much good.”

But it was the late-game issues that ultimately proved the most costly, knocking the Dodgers out of first place in the NL West with their bullpen once again struggling to find its way.

“I don’t expect us to be here for the duration of the season,” Roberts said. “But as of now, that’s where we are. It just has to be better, all around.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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