Dodgers shut down by Smoltz, Braves
Los Angeles strands 11 on base in series-opening loss
ATLANTA -- If you've wondered how long Dodgers manager Grady Little will stick with third baseman Wilson Betemit, a good answer might be the sixth inning of Friday night's 4-0 loss to the Braves.
Sure, it was a double switch, but Betemit's departure could be longer lasting. Betemit had just struck out for the third time against former teammate John Smoltz, this time looking, stranding runners on first and second. He previously stranded the bases loaded on the second strikeout, and he left runners on first and second when he fanned on three pitches in the first strikeout.
So Betemit left seven runners on base, and while his teammates also slumped during the seven innings tossed by the marvelous Smoltz, Betemit is the only starter batting .125. The Dodgers got away with his slump in April, but Betemit is now costing the Dodgers in game situations.
"He's pretty much hit rock bottom right now," said Little. "There's nowhere to go but up."
Asked if that meant he was sticking with Betemit, Little said: "Not necessarily. We'll see."
In most cases when a young hitter is having this much trouble, he's sent to the Minor Leagues to work things out. The Dodgers have been reluctant to do that with Betemit because he's out of options and could be lost to another club. Nonetheless, breaking out of a slump like this against the John Smoltzes and Tim Hudsons of the world is asking a lot.
"I think he's thinking too much," said Rafael Furcal, who has played with Betemit for most of their careers in Atlanta and Los Angeles. "But nobody is doing [anything] right now."
Betemit probably would have been replaced already by top third-base prospect Andy LaRoche if LaRoche wasn't struggling at Triple-A, but La Roche entered Friday night's game hitting .245 with three homers. If the Dodgers try to replace Betemit from the Minor Leagues, a more likely candidate is Tony Abreu, who is hitting .355, although he's been a middle infielder until a few recent trials at third.
Then there's Nomar Garciaparra, an option at third base that Little has consistently refused to consider for fear his brittle body would come unglued. Take that bat out of the lineup, Little's thinking goes, and the current problems are dwarfed.
But the current problems are mounting. With Jeff Kent following Thursday's off-day with a second day off against a first-place team, the Dodgers were shut out for the first time this year and have scored five runs in the last four games.
They stranded 11 baserunners and couldn't score with no outs in the fourth inning and the bases loaded, which has become pretty common, as they are 2-for-35 with the bases loaded this year. On Saturday, they get to face Hudson and his 1.30 ERA.
"It should be a real concern of mine, and we have to make some changes in the batting order or personnel or something," Little said of the wasted chances. "It's getting old watching this. Right now, we're not getting the big hits when we need them. Hopefully we'll get started tomorrow."
Little's desperation was apparent in the fifth inning when he had Pierre (3-for-7 the previous two games) bunt Furcal over with one out in the fifth inning, down 2-0. Garciaparra flied out to end the inning.
Brett Tomko (0-3), coming off an unfortunate emergency relief outing Monday night, couldn't make it out of the fifth inning while walking six, and nobody said he pitched a bad game. The Braves' four runs scored on a pair of two-out doubles by Brian McCann and Jeff Francoeur, and neither ball was hit hard.
"Give Smoltz credit," said Tomko. "He pitched a good game and I didn't pitch good enough."
The pitch McCann hit in the first inning was well outside of the strike zone, and he flicked it down the left-field line. Francoeur's was a fifth-inning sinking liner for which center fielder Juan Pierre charged and appeared to dive too soon as the glove (facing down) went under the ball, which tipped the top of the webbing and rolled behind him.
Meanwhile, the Dodgers had baserunners in six innings. Their best at-bat was Ramon Martinez's two-out liner in the fourth with the bases loaded, but Willie Harris made a running catch.
"The difference in the game was two plays," said Little. "Their left fielder made a great play on the ball by Martinez, and they had the bases loaded and the ball went off the glove in center field. That was the ballgame."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.