The Dodgers bullpen was supposed to be a strength. Why has it struggled early on?

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 14, 2024: Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher J.P. Feyereisen (45) leaves the game.

Their top two relievers had pitched the two previous nights, so the Dodgers had little choice but to turn to J.P. Feyereisen, a 31-year-old journeyman trying to work his way back from shoulder surgery, in the seventh inning with the score tied against the San Diego Padres on Sunday.

A walk, a single, a walk, and a Jurickson Profar three-run double later, the Padres were on their way to a 6-3 victory.

If Brusdar Graterol or Blake Treinen was available, manager Dave Roberts could have turned to one of the two veteran right-handers in that situation against the Padres. Or maybe one or both of them would have pitched in the previous two games, freeing up closer Evan Phillips or setup man Daniel Hudson to work Sunday.

But the hard-throwing Graterol, who went 4-2 with a 1.20 ERA in 68 games last season, is on the 60-day injured list because of right-shoulder inflammation and won’t be eligible to return until May 20.

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And Treinen, who sat out most of 2022 and all of 2023 because of shoulder injuries but appeared to be regaining his 2021 form (6-5, 1.99 ERA in 72 games) with 3 ⅔ scoreless innings in spring training, has been sidelined since a March 9 line drive bruised a lung and fractured several ribs and is not expected back until early May.

Those two injuries, combined with the early season struggles of two right-handers who were dominant for the Dodgers in 2023, have thinned out a bullpen that was expected to be a strength but has looked a bit wobbly while cycling through 15 different relievers in the first month of 2024.

“There have been some games where we’ve given up runs late or given up some crooked numbers and not allowed our offense to come back, where if you had those two leverage guys, I think things could have been different,” Roberts said.

“The hard part is just making sure we stay the course and check all the boxes with Blake, who’s coming [back] first, and then with Brusdar, so we can get them and keep them once they get back. But their presence has certainly been missed.”

Some injuries and inconsistencies in a rotation that entered Friday night’s game against the New York Mets with a 4.15 ERA (16th in baseball) and was averaging just under 4 ⅔ innings per start has strained a bullpen that has cracked at times under the stress.

A relief corps that went 24-11 with a major league-best 2.28 ERA from June 20 through the end of last season entered Friday with a 4.13 ERA, ranked 17th in baseball. Dodgers relievers had thrown a major league-high 93 ⅔ innings, given up 13 homers, third most in the game, and walked 32 batters, ninth most in baseball.

“Teams don’t like to push their starters quite as much at the beginning of the season, so I think it’s like this every April,” Hudson said. “As guys in the rotation start to build up more stamina, I think that will take a little bit of stress off us.”

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The Dodgers might have better absorbed the injuries to Graterol and Treinen if veteran right-handers Ryan Brasier and Joe Kelly were pitching more like they did in 2023.

But Brasier, who went 2-0 with an 0.70 ERA in 39 games last season, entered Friday with a 4.50 ERA in eight games and had already given up more earned runs (four) and home runs (two) in eight innings than the three earned runs and one homer he yielded in 38 ⅔ innings in 2023.

Kelly, who had a 1.74 ERA in 11 games for the Dodgers after his July 28 trade from the Chicago White Sox last season, entered Friday with a 5.87 ERA in eight games, giving up four of his five earned runs in a five-run seventh inning of a 6-5 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals on March 30.

“I feel pretty good physically, but my velocity is down a little bit,” said the 37-year-old Brasier, who gave up three runs — two on a Fernando Tatis Jr. homer — in a three-run seventh inning of an 8-7 loss to San Diego on April 12. “I’m doing some things to try to get it back to normal.”

Brasier’s four-seam fastball, which averaged 95.7 mph in 2023, is averaging 94.2 mph this season, his two-seam sinking fastball, which averaged 96.0 mph in 2023, is down to 93.9 mph, and his cut-fastball has dropped from 92.0 mph to 90.5 mph.

The 85-mph slider that was so effective for Brasier last season, when he held opponents to a .120 average (10 for 83) and no homers in at-bats ending with the pitch, has yielded a .417 average (five for 12) and two homers this season.

Kelly’s velocity is also down a tick from 2023, from 98.9 mph on his sinker to 97.7 mph, from 99.0 mph on his four-seamer to 98.0 mph, and from 91.6 mph on his slider to 90.4 mph, but the 35-year-old still ranks in the 96th percentile in fastball velocity.

“Whether you’re a starter or a reliever, you kind of have to minimize damage,” Roberts said. “If you look back at some of the games we haven’t won, we’ve given up crooked numbers in certain innings.”

There are some bright spots in the bullpen. Phillips entered Friday with a 1.17 ERA in eight games and had converted all five of his save opportunities. Veteran left-hander Ryan Yarbrough was 2-0 with a 3.20 ERA in 19 ⅔ innings over his first six games.

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Hudson, who missed the second half of 2022 and most of 2023 because of knee injuries, was so effective in his first nine games (2.00 ERA, 12 strikeouts, no walks in nine innings) that he has moved into a setup role.

“Obviously, with the arms that we had, I wasn’t really expecting anything,” said the 37-year-old Hudson, who signed a minor league deal in December. “I knew I could still fill that [setup] role. The fact that I’m doing it early on, it’s been a lot of fun.”

Hudson wouldn’t have assumed such a high-leverage role if Graterol and Treinen were healthy, and the bullpen will be hard-pressed to regain the second-half dominance that helped propel the Dodgers to a 100-win season in 2023 until Graterol and Treinen return.

“Knowing what they can do late in games, it just lengthens our bullpen to have those two guys in there with experience pitching in big situations,” said Hudson, who closed for the World Series-winning Washington Nationals in 2019. “It’ll be nice to get those guys back when they’re ready.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.