Backing Pitchers Off Becomes A Vital Step

If you watched the Belmont last Saturday you saw a race that can be called "epic" without apologizing. It featured a duel between Curlin and the filly Rags To Riches down the interminable stretch that is the Belmont with the filly winning by maybe half a head.

The ultimate difference in that race might well have been because Rags To Riches has been raced very carefully while Curlin had been in all three of the Triple Crown races, a grueling five-week grind. So, Rags To Riches was much fresher.

In baseball pitchers are much like thoroughbreds- athletes that depend upon appendages for success, horses' legs, pitchers' arms. And coaches in baseball like trainers in racing know well the dangers of overwork. And that's why there are pitch counts today even to the point that a pitcher on his way to a no-hitter will still be lifted if he's reached his limit. They're thinking of careers here, not a single game.

And it's also why the Dodgers have already begun to implement a policy of backing  starting pitchers off. Several were pulled from the rotation for a time to perform bullpen duties, not because they've faltered particularly but because in June you already have to consider the toll that a lot of innings will place upon an arm  come August.

Arm injuries have already surfaced. Scott Elbert, one of the very best and brightest, is done for the year. Steve Johnson and Brent Leach, two other hopes, are sidelined. Elbert, who was a first-round draft choice in 2004, joins another first-rounder, Bryan Morris, in rehab. Morris, a 2006 selectee, was overworked in college and made it through only one season before he had to have surgery.

The 2006 first-rounder, Clayton Kershaw, was pulled from the rotation recently, not because he was aching in any way but just because they decided to give him a rest. There was, however, no bullpen assignment for him, just a period of easing off. There was some concern among fans that he might be injured. No so, and his six shutout innings in his return Wednesday demonstrated his soundness.

The shuffling of assignments occurred throughout the system. Thus, D. J. Houlton and Eric Stults at Las Vegas, James McDonald, Jesus Castillo and Javy Guerra at Inland Empire; Cody White, Josh Wall and Thomas Melgarejo at Great Lakes all pulled duty in the 'pen.

This accomplished other facets as well for, among other things, it gave coaches a chance to see how these pitchers perform as relievers. After all, Eric Gagné was once a starter. So was Jonathan Broxton. Chad Billingsley will probably get back to starting in the future but right now he's a relief pitcher. And perhaps the best of the current minor league closers, Jon Meloan at Jacksonville, also is a converted starter.

The moves also gave them a chance to see how pitchers who have been confined to relief duties in the most part look starting a game. They may well be used as spot starters or even make a rotation sometime down the road. Cody White didn't start in his first three seasons but he's doing it now for Great Lakes and doing it well.

Of those who got their chance to become a starter- at least, for a turn or so, Francisco Felix at Inland Empire showed promise in particular.

The main goal though is to keep those arms fairly fresh and hopefully out of Dr. Frank Jobe's hands. Pitching injuries have always been considered inevitable but they'll keep taking steps to change that. And carefully monitoring workloads has become a major part of that. 

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