Dodgers' injury-ravaged bullpen finally implodes in loss to Reds

The Dodgers’ injury-ravaged bullpen had been lurking like a land mine in recent weeks.

On Friday, the shorthanded group finally imploded.

In the kind of meltdown the team has dreaded of late — with key relievers Evan Phillips, Brusdar Graterol, Ryan Brasier and Joe Kelly all on the injured list — the Dodgers’ relief corps came unglued in the fifth inning Friday night, giving up four runs (plus an inherited runner) in the decisive sequence of a 9-6 loss to the Cincinnati Reds.

“You’re trying to figure out how to get through the game,” manager Dave Roberts said of the shorthanded state of his bullpen. “Unfortunately, it just didn’t work out.”

Entering Friday’s fateful frame, the Dodgers appeared to be rolling toward a win in the opener of a six-game trip. They led by two runs. Their starting pitcher, James Paxton, had appeared to find a rhythm. And their recently slumping bats had awoken at hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark.

But then, in a nightmarish turn of events that saw three pitchers take the mound in an eight-batter sequence, everything changed.

Paxton gave up a leadoff home run to Stuart Fairchild before issuing a two-out walk to Spencer Steer. It was the fourth free pass Paxton had allowed, with the veteran left-hander again battling the command issues that dogged him earlier this year. It was also Paxton’s last pitch of the night, prompting manager Dave Roberts to come to get him after 95 pitches.

That’s when the inning went off the rails.

Needing to dip into the underbelly of his bullpen, Roberts called upon Yohan Ramírez, a five-year veteran with decent stuff but a history of command issues (he has averaged nearly five walks per nine innings in his career) whom the Baltimore Orioles and New York Mets had already designated for assignment earlier this year.

“He’s got to go out there and just do his job,” Roberts said.

Instead, Ramírez could barely throw a strike.

The right-hander missed badly with his first three pitches before plunking Tyler Stephenson. He grazed the zone just once in a five-pitch walk to Santiago Espinal. Then, in another 3-and-0 count, he hit Nick Martini with a 95-mph fastball, forcing home the game-tying run with the bases loaded.

Ramírez would go no further, getting pulled after his requisite three batters. But the mess he left behind didn’t dissipate.

His replacement, left-hander Alex Vesia, had to face a right-handed hitter in Jonathan India. Vesia fell behind 3-and-0, before working the count full. Then, on the payoff pitch, Vesia offered up an inner-half four-seamer that India turned on for a game-altering grand slam.

The ticking bullpen time bomb had finally detonated. The Dodgers’ lack of relief options had finally blown up in their face.

“I still don’t feel it was too much of a leverage spot,” Roberts said, noting the Dodgers needed just one out from Ramírez to escape the inning and set up their preferred late-game plan. “I think that was a good spot for him. And we just didn’t get it done tonight.”

Of course, this all should be a short-term problem for the Dodgers.

Phillips (out since May 3 with a hamstring strain) is set to begin a rehab assignment this weekend. Brasier (out since April 27 with a calf strain) is close behind him, Roberts said pregame. Graterol and Kelly appear further away from returning. Yet, the team’s bullpen had still been performing well in their collective absence, entering Friday ranked fourth in the majors with a 3.21 ERA (including an NL-best mark of 2.26 this month, when the injuries have been most prevalent).

Still, there are nights like Friday when even one extra arm might have made the difference.

And until the Dodgers’ bullpen is back at full strength, the potential for more late-game collapses will remain.

“It’s frustrating,” Roberts said flatly.

One remedy for the Dodgers is consistent starting pitching — something they’d had plenty of lately before Paxton’s command issues returned Friday.

Despite his 5-0 record and 2.84 ERA entering the night, this season has been a bit of a slog for Paxton. All year, his signature cutter has eluded him. And against the Reds, the 35-year-old shelved the pitch completely, failing to throw it once for the first time in an outing since 2016.

“Just not there yet,” Paxton said of his cutter. “There’s other pitches that I think are better to throw in-game right now. It’s something I’m going to work on on the side and if it comes around, we’ll use it. But right now it’s just not there.”

The move didn’t translate to better results.

Paxton walked two of the first three batters he faced (he had no free passes in his previous two outings) and then gave up a three-run homer to Steer.

And while he navigated traffic for the next three innings, his shaky command resurfaced in the fifth, leaving him with 28 walks this season (tied for fourth-most in MLB).

“Just couldn’t really find a rhythm,” Paxton said. “I feel like I got better as the game went on a little bit and then just that fifth inning, kind of lost the handle a little bit again.”

The Dodgers did get Paxton off the hook for a loss.

The Dodgers temporarily recovered. They scored four times in the second inning, including two on a double from Chris Taylor, his first extra-base hit of the season, and another on a double from Mookie Betts, one of his three hits in the game. Will Smith made it 5-3 on a solo home run in the fifth, going the other way for his sixth round-tripper of the season.

From there, though, the bullpen fell apart. The offense never recovered (the Dodgers finished just three for 14 with runners in scoring position, and had a couple deep drives robbed by leaping catches from Reds center fielder Fairchild). And for one of the first times this year, their long list of reliever injuries finally backfired in explosive, excruciating fashion.

“It was unfortunate to see how it went,” Paxton said. “But that’s baseball. It happens sometimes.”

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