Pitching a fit

PHILADELPHIA – Their home is Las Vegas, so somebody ought to be able to calculate the odds.

Of the 29 pitchers employed by the Triple-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers this season – a staggering number even by minor league standards – shouldn't one be a viable fill-in candidate with the big club?

Brett Tomko, the Dodgers' fifth starter, is 2-11 with a 5.80 earned-run average and has given up 20 earned runs in 26 innings in his last five starts. In that time, the Dodgers have gone from leading the National League West by a game to trailing the Arizona Diamondbacks by six.

And though flights on recent road trips have been ghostly silent and the clubhouse feels like a morgue, nobody is admitting the fight is over. In fact, their 15-3 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies on Wednesday night was their most inspired effort in weeks, leaving them 2½ games behind the San Diego Padres for the wild card.

"We need all five starters to be effective game in and game out," said Derek Lowe, who went seven innings to beat the Phillies. "That's the only way we're going to get back into, not only the wild card, but our division. It starts with pitching. You've got to get consistent starting pitchers, one through five, to keep your team in the game."

The Dodgers broke spring training with perhaps the most starting depth of any team, but Jason Schmidt and Randy Wolf went out with shoulder problems and Hong-Chi Kuo had elbow surgery. Only Wolf has a chance to return in September, and only as a reliever.

So, what to do? Where to find a starter?

The pickings are slim. One of the Las Vegas 29 is already in the rotation, ahead of Tomko. He's rookie left-hander Eric Stults, promoted two weeks ago despite an abominable 7.56 ERA and giving up 134 hits in 89 1/3 innings in the Pacific Coast League.

Stults has fared somewhat better at the major-league level thus far, going 1-1 with a 3.91 ERA, but aren't the Dodgers supposed to have one of the strongest farm systems in baseball? Where are all those prospects other teams covet?

The strength has been in position players – witness All-Star catcher Russell Martin, first baseman James Loney and outfielder Matt Kemp.

Yes, standout setup reliever Jonathan Broxton and current No. 3 starter Chad Billingsley are recent products of the system, but there is a serious lack of quality pitchers bubbling below the big-league surface. And it's never been more noticeable, with the Dodgers in third place in the NL West and clinging to the bottom rung of the playoff race.

D.J. Houlton, who spent 2005 with the Dodgers as a Rule 5 pick and except for a brief call-up has been in Las Vegas ever since, has been the top starter at Triple-A, going 6-4 with a 3.87 ERA. Yet Dodgers manager Grady Little hasn't shown confidence in him.

Next in the pecking order could be James McDonald, an 11th-round pick in 2002 who missed the 2004 and 2005 seasons with injuries. He started this season in Class A and is 6-2 with a 1.68 ERA since moving up to Double-A. However, McDonald, who weighs less than 200 pounds despite being 6-feet-5, has lost several miles off his fastball in recent starts and the Dodgers front office doesn't believe he is ready for the big leagues.

The best prospects are left-handers Scott Elbert and Clayton Kershaw, but Elbert, 22, is out with an injury and Kershaw, 19, has had only three starts at Double-A. The only pitcher the Dodgers are excited about promoting is short reliever Jonathan Meloan, who has pitched well at Jacksonville and Las Vegas. He is expected to make his debut when rosters expand Sept. 1.

If it's any consolation for Dodgers fans, the highly regarded starter they drafted in the first round in 2006 but were unable to sign, Luke Hochevar, has struggled at Double-A and Triple-A with the Kansas City Royals and wouldn't be much help right now, either.

The Dodgers have contacted David Wells, 44 and juggling offers from several teams, but he'd hardly be the cavalry. Wells' numbers with the San Diego Padres before he was released were Tomko-esque.

At least the Dodgers aren't alone in their quandary – few teams have a decent fifth starter. The Phillies today will turn to Fabio Castro, who has a 12.27 ERA in three relief appearances and will be making his first major league start.

The New York Mets, whom the Dodgers play this weekend, picked Brian Lawrence off the salvage heap three weeks ago after the Dodgers, Colorado Rockies, Pittsburgh Pirates and other teams passed on him. He's made four starts, posting a 5.57 ERA and lasting more than five innings only once.

And barring an unexpected change, Lawrence and Tomko will match up Sunday at Shea Stadium, hitters will trip over one another getting to the bat rack and the managers will cover their eyes.

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