SAN FRANCISCO -- Despite a trip-ending defeat Wednesday night, the Dodgers are still in first place, which makes you wonder how great life would be if they had a solid starting rotation.

In a 9-4 loss to the Giants, Dodgers starter Eric Stults didn't get out of the third inning, while Giants starter Tim Lincecum pitched for seven innings like the Cy Young winner he was last year.

Stults' early departure continued a distressing trend. Since April 15, Chad Billingsley and Randy Wolf are the only Dodgers starters to pitch past the fifth inning. On the season, the trio of Stults, Clayton Kershaw and James McDonald (who starts Thursday night) are averaging 4 2/3 innings per start.

As a result, changes are coming. Veteran Jeff Weaver is expected to be promoted from Triple-A Albuquerque on Thursday, initially to bolster a bullpen that pitched 5 1/3 innings after Stults was driven for cover, but very possibly to slide into the starting rotation. Weaver was listed as the Thursday night starter for Albuquerque. Eric Milton, having thrown back-to-back wins at Triple-A, might not be far behind.

After the game, the Dodgers announced that Scott Elbert, who allowed two runs in 2 1/3 innings Wednesday night, had been optioned to Double-A Chattanooga, with a corresponding move to be announced Thursday.

"We're certainly looking to," manager Joe Torre said when asked if Weaver, Milton or Shawn Estes might be called up. "Tonight we have to get the starter after the second inning and have to go through a lot of the pitching staff. We're looking to do something to give us a little more depth and a little more length."

It's not certain if reliever Cory Wade will be activated after only one inning of a Minor League rehab assignment, but without him, late-inning leads have become an adventure for the Dodgers, as demonstrated in the previous two games.

That, however, wasn't a problem against Lincecum. The Dodgers never led, as he didn't allow a hit until the fourth inning, a runner in scoring position until the fifth or a run until the Dodgers scored three and chased him in the eighth.

Torre even tried an unconventional lineup, batting Stults eighth and inserting Juan Pierre in the ninth spot to utilize his speed with Rafael Furcal behind him. Pierre scored one run and doubled home another, but it was long after the game was decided. It was the first time a Dodgers pitcher batted in any spot other than ninth since Don Drysdale in 1965.

So, what makes Lincecum so effective?

"I don't know. He's a Cy Young," said Manny Ramirez, who went 1-for-3 with a walk against Lincecum.

Torre offered a more elaborate explanation.

"He had great stuff. He throws in the mid-90s, then all of a sudden the changeup and it looks like a fastball," said Torre. "When he falls behind and the hitters make him throw a strike, he did. He has a great deal of confidence in his off-speed pitches. He throws it 3-2 and when he's behind in the count. He's really special."

And the Dodgers starters, not so much. Stults was called up to replace Hiroki Kuroda, who received a cortisone injection this week for his strained left oblique muscle and will miss several more weeks. Repeating a pattern of the last few years, Stults initially pitched effectively after his promotion and came into this game 2-0, but in recent starts struggled with his command and his ERA is up to 5.50.

"I think he loses his aggressiveness, from what I've seen," said Torre. "He doesn't fire at them. The first couple games last year [including a shutout of the White Sox], he really looked like he knew what he wanted to do and stayed with the plan. Tonight, he didn't look that way."

Stults had a simpler explanation.

"Tonight, I just plain stunk," he said. "It was one of those nights I just couldn't figure it out. I don't feel I was tentative, but I was pitching behind in counts. And when I made a quality pitch, they fought it off. I practically bounced a pitch to [Emmanuel] Burriss and he hit it up the middle. I'm not a guy who throws 95, who can go 2-0 and come back at you."

Like Lincecum. Of course, the Giants starter had an early lead to work with, as Bengie Molina had a two-run triple in the first inning. Molina added a solo homer in the seventh for the Giants, who also scored on Edgar Renteria's second-inning RBI single, RBI hits from Nate Schierholz and Burriss in the third inning and an RBI double by Renteria in the sixth.

The Dodgers finally scored in the eighth on Orlando Hudson's second hit, a broken-bat double; Andre Ethier's bases-loaded double-play grounder; and Brad Ausmus' RBI single.

The Dodgers used four relievers. Ramon Troncoso continued his effective ways with 1 1/3 scoreless innings, lowering his ERA to 1.38. Hong-Chih Kuo, who has struggled all month, looked like last year's top setup man with a 1-2-3 inning. Elbert was charged with two runs in 2 1/3 innings and has a 7.11 ERA, which earned him the trip back to Chattanooga.