Dodgers Continue to Work With Roster

Even as the Dodgers got off to a sizzling start in their effort to defend their National League West division title, they are not without their problems, especially when it comes to pitching. This is a normal procedure early in the season and Los Angeles, despite the great start, is still tweaking the roster.

First, rookie right-hander James McDonald finally has been dropped from the rotation because he failed to complete five innings in three of his four starts. He will be replaced by veteran right-hander Jeff Weaver, who was promoted to the majors for the first time since September 2007 and pitched four shutout innings that night in relief of McDonald, who failed to get out of the second inning.

Although McDonald will remain in the majors and will pitch out of the bullpen, where he was successful following a late-season call-up last year, he was sent to Class A Inland Empire (Calif.) for a two-day visit with his mentor, 66ers pitching coach Charlie Hough.

The Dodgers also lost what was supposed to be a key member of their bullpen when left-hander Hong-Chih Kuo was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a strained left elbow. Kuo finally admitted his elbow, where he had two Tommy John surgeries during his minor-league days, was bothering him on Friday night.

That admission came only after a bizarre attempt to warm up in the bullpen in anticipation of pitching the eighth inning of that night's game with San Diego. Kuo threw two of his pitches over the gate and onto the field, and almost all of his pitches missed the strike zone by a wide margin.

Rate Padres Sweep
Fresh from their first four-game sweep of the San Diego Padres ever at Dodger Stadium, the Dodgers appear to be riding high with a 4-1/2-game lead in the National League West.

A big factor in the club's success this season has been the performance of the table setters. With back-to-back, switch-hitting speedsters hitting in the top two spots in Rafael Furcal and Orlando Hudson, the Dodgers have scored 22 runs in the first inning this season, tying them for second in the majors in that category with Baltimore.

Only the New York Mets have more first-inning runs with 26. The only inning in which the Dodgers have been more productive has been the seventh, when they have scored 27 runs. Furcal and Hudson have combined to score 39 runs for the Dodgers already this season. At 18-8, the Dodgers are off to their best 26-game start since 1984.

Mark Loretta
When veteran infielder Mark Loretta signed a one-year, $1.25 million free-agent contract with the Dodgers over the winter, it was widely assumed he would play a utility role, occasionally filling in at first, second or third. But 24 games into the season, Loretta has appeared defensively in only six of them.

Instead, he has become the last thing anyone thought he would be: a premier pinch hitter.

Loretta has seven hits in 10 pinch-hit appearances this season, with two RBI. He is batting .474 (9-for-19) overall, with a .524 on-base percentage. "The results are good, but you just try to go up there and have a good at-bat and ultimately make contact," Loretta said. "My plan (is to) make contact, and even if you don't hit it great, you have a chance to do something.

"I started out my career in this role and have come full circle. When I first came up with Milwaukee I was ‘the utility guy' until I was able to break into the starting lineup. It's something I've done in the past. I'm content with it because of the fact that we're winning. We have a chance to go far."

Pitchers' Batting Eighth
Manager Joe Torre submitted a starting lineup last week that had pitcher Eric Stults batting eighth and outfielder Juan Pierre batting ninth. It marked the first time since Aug. 15, 1965, when Walter Alston turned in a card that had Don Drysdale batting seventh against Pittsburgh, that a Dodgers pitcher began the game batting anywhere other than the No. 9 hole.

Pierre started for just the third time, and Torre had strongly considered batting him ninth in at least one of those. This time, Torre did it, a decision that was based largely on Pierre's ability to steal a base and the fact that ability might be hindered by having Stults, or any other pitcher, at the plate.

The alignment also gave the Dodgers three table setters -- Pierre, shortstop Rafael Furcal and second baseman Orlando Hudson -- batting in front of Manny Ramirez, making Ramirez akin to a cleanup hitter even though by batting third, he was assured of coming up in the first inning.

Torre said he met with Pierre briefly to explain the rationale. "I would be willing to bat 11th as long as I'm in that lineup," Pierre said. "He doesn't have to explain anything to me."

Pierre wound up leading off just one inning, the eighth, and although the Dodgers trailed 7-0 at the time, he did kick off a three-run rally. Pierre, Furcal and Hudson all reached ahead of Ramirez, who then walked.

Roster Report
--LHP Brent Leach, who posted a 0.69 ERA in 13 appearances for Class AA Chattanooga (Tenn.) while striking out 17 batters in 13 innings, received his first major-league call-up on Saturday. He was recalled to take the roster spot of Hong-Chih Kuo, who was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a strained left elbow. Leach, the Dodgers' sixth-round pick in the 2005 amateur draft out as a college senior, was added to the 40-man roster this past winter.

--RHP Chad Billingsley continued his torrid start, holding the Padres to two runs on four hits over seven innings while striking out eight. Billingsley became the first Dodgers starting pitcher to win his first five decisions since Brad Penny did so two years ago. Billingsley is now unbeaten in his past 11 regular-season starts beginning on Aug. 30, 2008, and he is 9-0 with a 2.67 ERA in that span.

--2B Orlando Hudson went 2-for-3 with two doubles and a walk on Sunday and is now hitting .475 (19-for-40) for the season at Dodger Stadium. Hudson, the last Dodgers player to have started every game this season, is batting .336 overall with a .408 on-base percentage. Hudson also has walked (13 times) more often than he has struck out (11).

--OF Matt Kemp is hitting just .154 (6-for-39) over his past 11 games through Sunday, during which time he had struck out 15 times. That skid coincided with the end of his season-opening, 14-game hitting streak. He went 0-for-4 on Sunday, striking out in each of his first three plate appearances.

--RHP Tanyon Sturtze, who had four saves but a 6.14 ERA in eight appearances for Class AAA Albuquerque, was released Friday. Sturtze asked the organization to release him after Jeff Weaver, another veteran right-hander who was pitching on a minor-league contract, was promoted to the majors Thursday. The Dodgers actually released Sturtze last September, but he remained with the club for the rest of the season as a third bullpen catcher, then was re-signed to a minor-league contract Jan. 28.

--LHP Shawn Estes, who had such a poor spring training that the Dodgers basically allowed him to go to Class AAA Albuquerque as a favor rather than releasing him, suddenly has pitched his way onto the organizational radar. In four starts for Albuquerque, including his six shutout innings Tuesday at New Orleans, Estes is 1-1 with a 2.37 ERA and has walked just four batters in 19 innings. Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti conceded that Estes, like fellow major league veterans and Albuquerque teammates Eric Milton and Jeff Weaver, is now a viable candidate to help the big-league club at some point this season.

--SS Rafael Furcal went 2-for-5 and has reached safely in all 21 games he has played this season. Furcal failed to draw a walk for the first time in five games. Despite his ability to get on base, he is hitting just .250 for the season with a .333 on-base percentage. He has hit in the leadoff spot in all 20 of the games he has started.

BY THE NUMBERS: .480 -- Combined batting average for Dodgers reserves Brad Ausmus and Mark Loretta, two veteran players and former everyday guys on the down sides of their careers who have accepted bench roles in their first season with the club. Ausmus, who turned 40 a couple of weeks ago, is hitting .417 (5-for-12). Loretta, 37, is hitting .538 (7-for-13), including five hits in seven pinch-hit at-bats.

*M*A*S*H* 4077 Medical Watch
LF Manny Ramirez (hamstrings) did not start on May 3, but is expected to start on May 4.

LHP Hong-Chih Kuo (left elbow strain) went on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to April 30.

RHP Hiroki Kuroda (strained left oblique) went on the 15-day disabled list April 11. He received a cortisone shot and will need to make a rehab start before rejoining the Dodgers.

RHP Jason Schmidt (right shoulder surgery) went on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to March 30. He was still pitching in extended spring training as of late April.

RHP Claudio Vargas (right elbow tendinitis) went on the 60-day disabled list retroactive to April 6. He might return as soon as he's eligible.

INF Doug Mientkiewicz (dislocated right shoulder) went on the 15-day disabled list April 17, and he was transferred to the 60-day DL on April 30. He had surgery April 20, and he is unlikely to return before September.