Vero Gropes For Pitching Solutions

When they were assembling the team that would represent Vero Beach this season, they knew it wasn't going to be as formidable as the one that played there in 2005. No, even though that team was eliminated in the first round of the Florida State League playoffs, it was probably the most talented one in the league.

And you don't replace players like Matt Kemp, Andy LaRoche, Chin-lung Hu and Tony Abreu immediately.

Still, the notion was that Vero could contend with its pitching- especially with what was expected to be the starters. They had a solid threesome being promoted from Columbus- Scott Elbert, Blake Johnson and Chris Malone.

There was returnee Julio Pimentel. Oh, sure, he'd come unraveled in the second half last year but he was a lot more talented than that. And there was Jon Meloan, a solid prospect who seemed more than capable of making the leap from rookie ball.

So, what happened? A lot of things and most of them bad. Meloan never did make it to Vero, developing a sore arm that has confined him to relief appearances- in Columbus. Elbert was every bit as good as advertised even if the team seemed disinclined to score when he pitched. He was so good that he's been promoted to Jacksonville.

Johnson has had some days when he's been brilliant, others when he's been just so-so. He's 4-3, 3.94 as a result.

Malone, on the other hand, has scarcely looked like the reliable pitcher he was at Columbus. He's had a series of withering defeats and is currently 2-6 with a wretched 6.02 ERA.

Pimentel gave glimpses of coming out of his funk but relapsed again- and again. He's been sent to the bullpen where it's been more of the same. He's also 2-6 with a 4.17 ERA.

When Meloan couldn't make it, lefthander Matt Merricks was thrust into his slot. He was hardly the answer as an 0-3, 4.11 mark attests. More than that, he's had recurring back problems and is now on the disabled list, just beginning his rehab.

The result is pitching coach Glenn Dishman has been groping for answers all season with little success. They tried Jonathan Figueroa after he came back from shoulder surgery. He, however, doesn't resemble the prospect he was a few years ago. His motion has changed for the worse, his fast ball has departed and he's 0-3, 9.00. You'll find him in the bullpen these days, too.

Alberto Bastardo, a Rule 5 acquisition from Baltimore, threw the ball very well at Columbus so was brought up. He pitched a one-hitter in his debut but hasn't come close to that dominance since. He's been uneven for the most part but with a 2-4, 3.77 record, has gone back into the rotation.

Lefthander Brent Leach was the best they had at Columbus and he, too, was brought in. But to the bullpen which is where they feel he belongs. He's been pitching middle relief for the most part but will gradually be moved to the back of the games with the idea that he could be a closer down the line.

Adam Thomas pitched well enough in relief to earn a shot at Jacksonville but he wobbled there so is back. He's 3-2, 3.04 and will be used as a starter. For now, anyway.

The latest hope is Mike Megrew and he could be at least part of the answer. He was a promising lefthander in 2004 before elbow surgery. The Marlins drafted him last winter but returned him because he was unable to pitch much in the spring.

But he's been very effective lately (0.71 ERA) in limited appearances, has built up his arm strength so is ready to return to starting. He'll get a chance.

No, the Dodgers didn't think they'd be as powerful as they were last year but last place? They never envisioned that, yet, nonetheless, that's where they finished in the first half. And, sadly, the start of the second has been little better.

There's still almost two months to go, though, and while the rotation little resembles what was expected, there's still a firm belief that things can't get worse. So, they'll trot out the new cast and hope for a revival.