PHOENIX -- Nobody in the Dodgers organization is willing to call 21-year-old Josh Lindblom a candidate for fifth starter, but watching the way he's pitched and the way manager Joe Torre is using him, figure he'll get the job sooner or later.

On Wednesday, when official fifth-starter candidates Eric Stults (2 1/3 innings) and Claudio Vargas (one inning) essentially pitched themselves out of the competition by allowing four runs each, the pitcher who lasted the longest at three innings and was most effective was Lindblom, charged with two runs that better defense could have prevented.

Lindblom pitched two innings his first two outings. He stretched out to three Wednesday on 44 pitches, one under his limit. He finally issued his first walk and more of his pitches were up than in the previous two games, but he struck out a pair and has six strikeouts in seven innings.

The likely scenario for Lindblom is to copy Clayton Kershaw's progression of last year -- last week's spring promotion from Minor League camp, impressive exhibition outings, an April assignment at Double-A and graduation to the big leagues sooner rather than later to take over for an injured or underperforming veteran.

Torre hasn't ruled out the possibility that Lindblom could make the club, and the way his staff has pitched this spring, why not? Pitching coach Rick Honeycutt cautioned not to read too much into Lindblom's three innings because it was all about pitch count. Honeycutt didn't rule out a spring start for Lindblom if Chad Billingsley misses one with his strained groin, but none is planned.

James McDonald gets his second start Thursday and, after throwing three hitless innings Saturday, would seemingly become the front-runner for the fifth starter job with another efficient outing against the Rockies. Eric Milton is scheduled to follow McDonald, and he's still in that mix, even though opponents are batting .348 against him.

Of course, as Torre said before Wednesday's game, McDonald already proved late last season that he can pitch out of the bullpen and an argument could be made that his versatility might be more valuable in a bullpen weakened by the departures of Takashi Saito, Joe Beimel and Chan Ho Park.

Because of concern over the bullpen (the team ERA is 6.29), Torre said before the game that Vargas would also be considered for a long-relief swingman role similar to what Park did last year and what Jeff Weaver has been vying for this spring.

Vargas was signed -- and used so far this spring -- as a fifth-starter candidate, and Torre said he wasn't out of that competition. He was scheduled to pitch two innings Wednesday but made it only one. The two home runs he allowed made for six in 15 1/3 spring innings and his ERA is 8.22.

Torre has given Stults (12.96 ERA, not counting three scoreless innings in a "B" game) some leeway because he reported to camp only two weeks after the death of his mother. Stults conceded it hasn't been easy.

"I'm not going to lie. Some days it's hard, there are days I miss my mom," he said after being charged with four runs in 2 1/3 innings. "But you have to get over it and focus on baseball and moving on. Some days it's hard to think about baseball."

He said he felt more comfortable Wednesday while allowed a normal starter's routine after struggling most of the spring with the erratic usage given fifth-starter candidates. He said his legs tired in the third inning and he's willing to try relieving, while acknowledging it would be a change.

"I feel I could throw in the 'pen," he said. "I'd just have to find a routine that works. I've started six of my seven years. It's kind of hard to switch gears. I think I could do it."

In the lefty reliever competition, Brian Mazone gave up his first runs of the spring, allowing a homer to left-handed slugger Prince Fielder, while hard-throwing Erick Threets served up a homer to J.J. Hardy.