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The tale of two Dodgers pitching staffs

LA starters have a 2.68 in August, but the relievers have a 6.63 ERA this month.

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at Colorado Rockies Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Dodgers are in the weeds this August. They haven’t found that 2018 magic yet. A large reason for LA’s inconsistencies this season is the fact that they are working with two very different pitching staffs. Dodgers relief pitchers have a 6.63 ERA, second worst in the NL, in August. Starters have a 2.68 ERA this month, but most of their efforts have been quickly dashed once the bullpen takes over. With Kenley Jansen’s absence looming large, the Dodgers look for literal relief by shifting two of their starters into the bullpen.

Kenta Maeda, Ross Stripling, and at some point Julio Urias will be available to pitch out of the bullpen. It does immediately improve the group of arms that Dave Roberts has to choose from. Roberts gets a lot of blame for his mismanagement of the bullpen, and rightfully so at times, but the players haven’t performed to expectations either. Roberts should squarely take blame for allowing Scott Alexander’s appearance to last longer than it should in Monday night’s 5-2 loss to the Giants, but his original choice to call upon him to pitch the ninth in the first place was justified considering the unreliability of nearly every guy in the pen this month.

The most frustrating part of Monday’s ninth-inning debacle was that it wasted a Clayton Kershaw gem. Kersh battled and pitched eight solid innings, allowing one run on four hits with nine strikeouts and no walks on 110 pitches. It was one of the best starts of the year for the supreme southpaw. He’s historically dominant over the Giants in his career, but Monday’s matchup vs. Giants ace and fellow left-hander Madison Bumgarner felt like the old times. Kershaw was in vintage form, and he was serving up sexy sliders and punishing fastballs to everyone’s delight.

Kershaw’s enduring tenacity was blatantly evident when he battled Hunter Pence in an eight-pitch at bat in the eighth frame. He went to Public Enemy No. 1 and induced a soft groundout from the antsy San Francisco outfielder. It was another solid effort by the Dodgers’ starting rotation. The Dodgers were three outs away from snapping a three-game losing streak.

The ninth inning was nothing short of a disaster. Roberts looked to Alexander to close it out. It didn’t seem like a terrible choice at the time considering Dylan Floro and JT Chargois were coming off poor relief appearances. Zac Rosscup’s ERA is 12.27, and Erik Goeddel was fresh off the DL with right lat inflammation.

Goeddel does have a solid 3.06 ERA in 35 1/3 innings between the Mariners and Dodgers. I’ll be interested to see if he can contribute more to the bullpen down the stretch now that he’s healthy.

After the game we found out John Axford, who was starting to show some promise, cracked his fibula. Because of course he did. Pedro Baez has always had the stuff for late inning duties, but we are well-versed in his laborious pace and inconsistencies over his five seasons with the Dodgers. So Roberts went to Alexander, and Kershaw’s eight innings of baseball magnificence were quickly erased as the Dodgers spiraled out of control. It was the fourth-straight ninth-inning loss by the bullpen, but this one really stung after Kershaw pushed himself to the limit to get them three outs away from the finish line.

The inconsistent offense is magnifying the Dodgers’ bullpen woes. Since the Dodgers scored 21 runs on August 2 against the Brewers, they have only scored 30 runs in their last 11 games (2.72 runs per game). They’ve only hit .235/.317/.417/.734 since the All-Star Break. That’s 13th in the NL. They’re no longer the only ones at the top of the leader board in home runs since the break and are tied with Atlanta and St. Louis with 35. They still do hold the lead in strikeouts (243).

It’s a lineup full of undeniable talent, but one that has only shown glimpses of its full potential even after adding Manny Machado and Brian Dozier ahead of the trade deadline. Matt Kemp and Max Muncy have regressed in the second half. Kemp’s second half 37 wRC+ is atrocious, and Muncy’s hitting .203 since the break. Machado has had trouble adjusting to a new league, and he’s only hit two home runs in his 97 at-bats with the Dodgers. There’s little wiggle room for the bullpen when the offense isn’t producing at nearly the same clip they were in the first half.

Last season the Dodgers’ bullpen was one the of best in baseball. They led the NL with a 3.38 ERA, 637 strikeouts, 1.15 WHIP, and held batters to a .222 batting average. This year they’ve notched 462 strikeouts thus far (9.43 K/9), but they’re 3.96 ERA is middle of the pack. They’ve allowed 56 home runs (1.14 HR/9). Only the Mets’ bullpen has allowed more round-trippers this year. The Dodgers’ bullpen has 22 blown saves on the year, third-most in the NL. Last season, the bullpen only blew 16 saves all year.

The Dodgers’ starters, on the other hand, have allowed 75 home runs. That’s 43 less home runs than the Reds’ starting pitching staff. They also have the lowest number of walks in the NL (166), and have the best WHIP in the league as well (1.13).

The starting pitching staff including Kershaw, blister-free Rich Hill, Walker Buehler, Ross Stripling, Kenta Maeda and Alex Wood have done their job. The Dodgers haven’t had the entirety of their pitching staff - both starters and relievers - and the offense synch up this season very successfully.

What do they do going forward for this final stretch of 41 games in the regular season? They’ll get some reinforcements in two weeks come September 1, but the lineup as it is now needs to find results at the plate these next two weeks in order to stay afloat in the standings. The starting rotation, which will get Hyun-Jin Ryu back Wednesday, needs to continue to execute short of pitching a complete game every start.

The bullpen, the most glaring weakness, will be the biggest question mark as the team forges on without closer Jansen. At some point, and soon, someone will need to step up and provide some reliability in the ninth inning. Barring any surprise late season trades, the Dodgers will need to find a way to win games with the arms they have. Shifting Stripling and Maeda to the pen will immediately give Roberts additional relief options, but there’s still no clear solution to the loss of their best pitcher.

Maeda was tagged with the loss in the heated 2-1 loss to the Giants on Tuesday. He allowed three singles and the winning run in the ninth inning in another frustrating loss for the Dodgers. Although Maeda has been effective out of the bullpen in the past, it remains to be seen if the shifted starters will be as effective in relief as the Dodgers hope.

A championship team requires excellent pitching, both starting and relief along with a productive offense. Right now the Dodgers are broken. There’s still time for everything to synch up, but the bullpen’s unreliability may be the biggest obstacle the Dodgers have to overcome.

Jansen is the one player on the Dodgers who is irreplaceable. The Dodgers don’t necessarily need to replace Kenley, but they need to find a more successful path to 27 outs without him for now.