Bullpen woes plague Cubs

Tribune staff reporter

When TV cameras caught Kyle Farnsworth chewing on his fingernails in the Cubs' dugout after his ineffective appearance in Sunday's 8-5 loss to Los Angeles, it was an apt metaphor for the state of the team's bullpen.

The NL West-leading Dodgers bounced back from a 5-2 deficit to take the rubber game of the series, scoring five in the eighth to force a virtual three-way tie atop the wild-card standings with San Francisco and San Diego.

Mark Prior allowed three runs on eight hits in 6 1/3 innings, then watched helplessly as Kent Mercker, Farnsworth, Jon Leicester and Glendon Rusch coughed it up.

"We blew it," Rusch said.

Farnsworth (4-4) has allowed eight runs in 1 1/3 innings over his last four outings. Eleven of the 15 batters he has faced in that span have reached base.

Cubs manager Dusty Baker said Farnsworth's problems "are probably all mental."

But Baker may have to consider whether to move Farnsworth into a role where he's pitching under less pressure, such as middle relief. Ryan Dempster and rookie Leicester are Baker's only other options for a right-handed setup man.

The Cubs led 5-3 when Farnsworth was summoned after Shawn Green opened the eighth with a single off Mercker. He ignored Green, who easily stole second on his first pitch.

Farnsworth retired one hitter, then walked Robin Ventura and went 2-0 on Alex Cora before hitting him with a 2-1 breaking ball to load the bases.

"It's tough when you walk guys and put guys on base without a hit," Baker said.

After Farnsworth exited to a chorus of boos, Olmedo Saenz's sacrifice fly off Leicester pulled the Dodgers within 5-4. Cesar Izturis then blooped a single over Mark Grudzielanek's head to tie it 5-5 and Steve Finley delivered a line single to right off Rusch to bring home the go-ahead run.

Milton Bradley's single off the right-field wall brought two more home, giving the Dodgers an 8-5 lead to entrust to closer Eric Gagne, who retired all six Cubs he faced for his 35th save.

"You don't want to give [Gagne] a three-run lead, that's for sure," Derrek Lee said. "You're facing an uphill battle when he's in the game. He's probably the best closer in the game."

The Cubs have lost six of their last nine games to San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles, dropping all three series.

"You don't want to lose any of them, late, early on or what have you," shortstop Nomar Garciaparra said.

"Sure, we're upset we lost, but at the same time we're going to bounce back and keep our heads up and keep plugging away."

Ramon Martinez, Corey Patterson and Michael Barrett homered off Dodgers starter Jose Lima, helping build a 5-2 lead for Prior.

But Mercker took over for Prior after he loaded the bases with one out in the seventh.

Mercker induced a double-play grounder from Bradley, but Garciaparra double-clutched on the relay, allowing Bradley to reach and a run to score.

For the first time since the starters have been healthy, all five have thrown well in one full turn of the rotation: Carlos Zambrano allowed one run in eight innings Wednesday against San Diego, Matt Clement threw five shutout innings Thursday against the Padres, Greg Maddux allowed two runs in 6 1/3 innings Friday against the Dodgers, Kerry Wood tossed eight shutout innings Saturday and then Prior allowed three runs in 6 1/3 Sunday.

Combined, that's a 1.60 earned-run average for the five starters. But the Cubs lost three of those five games, thanks in part to an 11.08 ERA by the bullpen.

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