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Paul Maholm missing strike zone, not bats

Maholm has six strikeouts and eight walks in 2014.

Harry How

LOS ANGELES -- Paul Maholm makes his living on the edges of the strike zone, but he hasn't been winning the battle so far this season.

Maholm threw 107 pitches in his five innings in Monday night's loss to the Phillies, but the Dodgers left-hander threw just 58 strikes. On the season, which includes three starts and three relief appearances so far, Maholm has thrown just 56.8% strikes, well below this year's National League average of 64.3% and his career mark of 62.9%.

"Some games you're painting the corners, some games you're missing by an inch or two. Tonight I didn't get ahead. If you're pumping strikes like Cliff was you get the benefit of the doubt," Maholm said after Monday's loss. "I wasn't doing it, so the close pitches didn't go my way. I threw some close, I threw some good, but not enough that I can complain. The strike zone was the least of my worries."

Maholm has walked more batters than he struck out in each of his three starts, and on the season has struck out six of his 82 batters faced. Among the 184 pitchers to throw at least 10 innings in 2014, Maholm's 7.3% strikeout rate ranks dead last.

I asked manager Don Mattingly if Maholm was missing enough bats.

"I think Paul is who he is. Paul is a guy who has to hit edges, and he's going to give you what he has. He's going to continue to keep changing speeds, changing locations," Mattingly said. "He is what he is. He's going to battle."

Maholm has thrown 315 pitches this season and gotten 18 swings and misses (5.7%), a little more than half the National League rate of 10.9%. Per Brooks Baseball, Maholm has thrown 130 sinkers this year, but far his most frequent pitch. He has gotten one swing and miss with that pitch, though batters are hitting .265 (9-for-34) with a .294 slugging percentage.

Maholm has thrown 41 curveballs and also gotten just one swing and miss, with batters hitting .500 (4-for-8) with a double.

The left-hander got three swings and misses in his 107 pitches on Monday.

"It was one of those nights that you have to battle, do whatever you can to get outs. I did my best of battling until the fifth, and then it unraveled. It caught up with me," Maholm said. "It comes back to me not getting ahead, me not making pitches, and me not pitching well."

Mattingly talked before Monday's game about walking a tightrope with the bullpen of late, with the heavy use the impetus for calling up Jose Dominguez for an eighth arm in the pen. But it's been a tightrope with Maholm too.

In Maholm's first start, on April 5 against the Giants, the Dodgers were still in the game, down 2-1 in the fifth when Pablo Sandoval hit a three-run home run. Last Wednesday in San Francisco, Maholm lasted through six innings and left in a 1-1 tie. On Monday, the game was again close in the fifth inning, but Ryan Howard's home run turned a 2-0 Dodgers deficit into 4-0.

Certainly the Dodgers could have helped Maholm by scoring more than two runs in his three starts while he was in the game. But just how much longer will the Dodgers need to walk that Maholm tightrope?

He will almost certainly start on Saturday against the Rockies, but after that is up in the air. Clayton Kershaw will throw a bullpen session on Tuesday and lines up to make a rehab start on Friday. Class-A Rancho Cucamonga has a home game, making them Kershaw's likely destination.

Kershaw threw 51 pitches on Sunday's simulated game, so if bumped to 65-70 pitches on Friday he could theoretically be ready to pitch 85-90 pitches his next time out. It really comes down to how cautious the Dodgers are with their $215 million ace.