A glaring weakness at the beginning of the season, the team’s relief corps had appeared to turn a corner during May.
Yes, Evan Phillips rediscovered his dominant form. But just as importantly, Caleb Ferguson, Brusdar Graterol and Yency Almonte emerged as reliable high-leverage options, giving the Dodgers a defined late-inning hierarchy to trust when trying to close games.
In recent weeks, however, performances have dipped. Inconsistency has returned.
And in a 9-8 loss to the Cincinnati Reds on Tuesday night — a defeat in which the Dodgers squandered a five-run lead, punctuated by Ferguson’s three-run blown save in the ninth — only one conclusion was clear:
The Dodgers’ bullpen is a problem again, one with few obvious solutions other than internal improvement or external additions leading up to the trade deadline.
“This was a tough one,” manager Dave Roberts said. “With this group of arms we have in the ‘pen, it shouldn’t happen.”
The Dodgers initially appeared to be cruising toward a series-opening win at Great American Ball Park, leading 8-3 at the end of the fourth inning after a home run from J.D. Martinez and grand slam from Freddie Freeman.
“Offensively, we scored enough runs to win a baseball game,” Roberts said.
But on the mound, an uncharacteristically shaky Dodgers pitching staff — which ranks 22nd in earned run average so far this season — stumbled once again.
Gonsolin managed to complete only five innings, unable to recover from the three-run lead he squandered in a 24-pitch bottom of the first.
“Just fell behind early in the outing,” said Gonsolin, who has pitched past the fifth inning in just three of eight starts.
“What that does is,” Roberts bemoaned later, “is it exposes you in the bullpen.”
Exposed, the Dodgers relievers were indeed.
Almonte gave up one run on three hits in the sixth, raising his season ERA to 6.84. Graterol surrendered another score in the seventh, the third straight outing in which he has failed to post a zero.
Phillips was the lone bright spot, retiring the heart of the Reds’ lineup in order in the eighth.
But with their best reliever burned — Phillips wasn’t an option for a second inning because of his recent workload, Roberts said — the manager faced a ninth-inning decision while protecting an 8-6 lead.
Trust Ferguson, a left-hander, against a string of right-handed Reds batters at the bottom of the order? Or summon Shelby Miller to set up right-on-right matchups?
“We’re counting on [Ferguson] to be a leverage guy regardless of handiness,” Roberts said, having picked the former. “I felt that part of the order, he should be able to handle that.”
Instead, Ferguson’s command disappeared amid a late-game rain.
He walked the leadoff batter, then another with one out to load the bases.
“It sped up on him,” said Roberts, who also believed a missed strike call frustrated the pitcher. “It’s just not an excuse to let that affect your performance. It clearly did tonight.”
Ferguson then forced home one run with yet another walk, before plunking Jake Fraley in his lone left-on-left matchup with a wide 2-and-2 fastball to tie the score at 8-8.
“I’ve just got to pitch better,” said Ferguson, who has now given up six runs in his past four outings. “I’ve been bad. I hope Doc keeps running me out there. I’ll figure it out, but at the end of the day, it comes back on me. I’ve just got to be better.”
Miller finally entered to face Matt McLain. But with the bases still loaded, McLain lifted a fly ball to center for a walk-off single that ended the game.
“This one stings,” Roberts said. “We still should have won that game.”
Instead, Roberts sat shaking his head postgame, short on answers for a bullpen that now ranks 26th in ERA, 23rd in walks and hits per inning and 26th in batting average against.
“They’re not throwing the ball well,” Roberts said. “When you look down there, I can trust guys, but it’s got to work both ways. The talent is there. But they’ve got to do their part too. Tonight is a night, we shouldn’t have lost this game.”
Not all the blame was on the bullpen.
Max Muncy acknowledged the offense might have “pulled our foot off the gas a little bit.” The third baseman was also in the middle of a couple of key defensive mistakes.
Gonsolin’s short start didn’t help, either, continuing a concerning trend from a rotation averaging barely five innings per start.
“Just overall,” Roberts said, “not a lot of good.”
But it was late-game troubles that ultimately proved costliest, knocking the Dodgers out of first place in the NL West with their bullpen 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, this is where we’re at. It’s just got to be better, all around.”