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Dodgers' crapshoot rotation must avoid Ryan Howard at all costs

PHILADELPHIA -- The Dodgers' decision to start Hiroki Kuroda was an understandable gamble that just didn't work, and manager Joe Torre wouldn't second-guess that call after Kuroda blew up early in their 11-0 defeat to the Phillies in Game 3. Kuroda may not get a second shot to start in this series, but that's OK. The Dodgers have several starters of similar ability, so Torre has a chance to tap a different one if they get to Game 7.

The bigger issue if the Dodgers are going to have a chance to come back to beat the defending world champion Phillies is not what to do about Kuroda (that should be easy, as this should be it) but rather what to do about Phillies slugger Ryan Howard. If they don't figure that one out, the Dodgers won't get to Game 7.

One of the keys to the Dodgers' upset sweep over the Cardinals was how brilliantly they pitched the great Albert Pujols in the Division Series. Their plan for Howard hasn't been nearly as successful so far.

The Dodgers had a smart strategy of avoidance with Pujols. But with Howard, that doesn't appear to be the case. While the Dodgers have walked Howard three times, they also have thrown him too may fat pitches. The result is six RBIs in this series, including two on a triple in the first inning in Game 3 that was all the Phillies would need.

"I wouldn't give him anything to hit," one Dodger said before the game. "Going into the series, I wouldn't have said that. But here (at Citizens Bank Ballpark), especially, all he has to do it hit a fly ball and it will go out."

That they should stay away from Howard should be obvious by now. Howard, who is batting .385 in the playoffs and slugging .731, also has at least one RBI in all seven of his games this postseason. And this has been going on awhile. After the All-Star break, he hit .305 and slugged .621. He also hit 23 home runs and drove home 74 runs.

The Dodgers started the series apparently believing Howard could be beaten by busting him inside. They may have to rethink that now, though. With Phillies at first and third and one out on Sunday night, Kuroda appeared to be trying to apply the game plan to Howard by continually going inside on him. Eventually, Kuroda got too much of the plate, and Howard sent a rocket into the right-field corner for a triple.

"We didn't come into the series saying we're going to walk Howard every chance we get," Torre said after the game. "We're certainly not going to pitch to him with a base open. There was no base open in the first inning ... He's got a pretty good supporting cast around him, too. There's no easy out in that lineup."

Torre has a point in that there are no easy choices here. Ex-Dodger Jayson Werth followed Howard's hit with a two-run home run that completely dashed the Dodgers' hopes.

In the end, Kuroda allowed six hits and six runs in 1 1/3 innings. Torre and company made the surprise decision to summon Kuroda for Game 3 after Torre accompanied pitching coach Rick Honeycutt to Arizona to see what he had. Kuroda had been bothered by a neck strain and hadn't pitched since Sept. 29. But when they saw him throw strikes, they took an understandable risk there.

"I don't second-guess the decision because we made it on what we saw," Torre said. "His bullpen was good for this start, and the bullpen today coming into the game was good. He came into the game and ... the ball just didn't behave."

The rotation has actually been a series of tricky calls throughout the postseason for Torre, since the Dodgers have a group of starters that all bring a variety of pluses and minuses. Most of his calls have worked so far, especially the one to utilize scrap-heap pickup Vicente Padilla, who was acquired for $80,000.

But the reality is, the Dodgers' rotation is a crapshoot. They have a collection of livable but less-than-dominant starters. Some see it as a group of No. 3-type starters. They could still win with their rotation, since they have an excellent bullpen and many other strengths. But undeniably, there is no Cliff Lee on this staff.

"We don't have a No. 1 or 2 (starter), that's no secret," one Dodgers official said. "[Clayton] Kershaw will be a 1. But right now we don't have a 1."

Their pitchers are all so close that Chad Billingsley, their de facto No. 1 pitcher during the regular season, hasn't been given a starting assignment yet in the NLCS. And ex-Phillie Randy Wolf, who started Game 1 of the Division Series, will make his first start of the NLCS Monday night in Game 4.

Billingsley got into Game 3 in relief, and while he didn't shut down the Phillies (two hits, two walks and two runs in 3 1/3 innings), he was a little bit better than Kuroda. Sources said weeks ago that some Dodgers people were losing some faith in Billingsley, and that's become obvious, as he's gone from regular-season No. 1 starter to mop-up man.

Torre will have a tough call if they get to Game 7 as to who should start.

The easier call now should be to avoid Howard at all costs.

If the iconic Torre has been bothered at all by the Dodgers-owning McCourts, as has been rumored, Torre hasn't been complaining about it, two Dodgers people said.

Those two Dodgers officials say if there's any issue at all there, they have yet to hear one word about it. "He's never said a word about it," one Dodgers person said.

"The job's been fun," Torre said. "And if that were the case, it wouldn't be fun. And the job really has been fun"

Frank McCourt is seen as a tough boss. But McCourt is likely preoccupied lately with his ongoing dispute with his wife, Jamie. They are divorcing, and the Los Angeles Times reported they are disputing who owns what portion of the team. McCourt's lawyer told the paper the team is his, while her lawyer said it's 50-50. So they have plenty to worry about beyond lineups.

Torre worked for 12 years for the Steinbrenners, and he was able to navigate that situation successfully. So it seemed unlikely the McCourts could become such a bother for him.

After Game 3, the Cooperstown-bound Torre reiterated his plan to finish out his three-year contract by managing only one more year after this one. "My wife doesn't believe me, but I anticipate that's what's going to happen," Torre told SI.com. "I know I also have said that before. But I haven't been 69 years old before. Am I saying a lightning bolt won't hit me? No, I can't guarantee that. But that's not what I anticipate."

Torre's wife isn't the only one who is skeptical.

"He's been in the game since he was 18," one Dodgers person said. "What else is he going to do?"

Dodgers GM Ned Colletti had a big year in 2009, basically restoring the team that went to the NLCS, then making several excellent acquisitions this summer, including Padilla, George Sherrill and Ronnie Belliard, who's taken Orlando Hudson's job in the postseason. Yet mysteriously, Colletti's situation remains unresolved.

People around the team believe that he will be extended at some point. But that it hasn't happened yet is stunning.

As was in the case in New York, where Torre was close to general manager Brian Cashman when they worked together, Torre has forged a very close relationship with the Dodgers GM. Colletti first tried to hire Joe Girardi to replace Grady Little but turned to Torre when it became clear Girardi wanted to replace Torre in New York instead. At the time Colletti hired Torre, they only knew each other slightly, and only through Don Zimmer, who Colletti knew from Cubs days and Torre knew from Yankees days. Yet Colletti hired him basically on the spot -- a very good call.

Colletti's contract called for a mutual option, whereby both sides would have to agree for a return at a previously agreed-upon figure. But the Dodgers have to understand that Colletti has earned a multiyear deal. He is also due a substantial raise (word is, he is far from being one of baseball's best-paid GMs, despite leading a marquee franchise to the LCS two years running).

One Dodger speculated that the club-owing McCourts were originally thinking they could keep Colletti's pay down if the team failed to make the playoffs. But with the Dodgers in the NLCS yet again, that plan should be out the window.

• The easiest contractual call anyone will make this winter will be the Phillies picking up the $9 million option on Cliff Lee's contract. The harder part for them will be locking him up beyond that. The Indians knew they couldn't afford him, but at least the Phillies have the money and a decent shot to do it.

• It's odd that Lee said he was told he was going to pitch the ninth inning if the lead stayed 8-0. But Charlie Manuel removed him when Shane Victorino made it 11-0 after Lee singled in the eighth. I know the Phillies' pen is somewhat iffy, but presumably they can hold an 8-0 lead.

• The Reds' hiring of Bryan Price as pitching coach should kill the rumors that Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan might surface in Cincy. La Russa has told folks in St. Louis he will either accept their offer to stay Cardinals manager or find something else to do in baseball besides managing.

• Here's the opinion of one NL executive: Time to break up the Mets. "Something's wrong with that team," that person said. "They are not good together." However, that person said he would hold onto David Wright.

• Funny that two former Mets, Bobby Valentine and Manny Acta, should be contending for the Indians managing job. Valentine would be a great choice for the rebuilding Indians if they can afford him.

• One interesting facet for the Dodgers-Phillies series is how some of the key players in it used to play for the other team. Padilla and Wolf comprise half the Dodgers' rotation in the series. Werth has been a find for the Dodgers.

• Rays people think the team badly underachieved this year. Have to say, I agree.

• The Brewers are probably willing to part with J.J. Hardy and Mat Gamel in trade to get some starting pitching help.

• The L.A. teams don't appear to have enjoyed the cold weather so far.

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