Caleb Ferguson, Dodgers’ bullpen blow lead late in loss to Guardians

The Dodgers might already have their postseason position locked up, starting this week with a 12-game lead in the National League West and a nine-game edge for a first-round bye.

But, the team still has plenty of questions to answer between now and October.

One of the bigger ones: Exactly which left-handed reliever they can trust most in their bullpen.

That predicament was highlighted, circled and underlined in painful fashion Tuesday, when top left-hander Caleb Ferguson gave up two inherited runs, then three more of his own, in a disastrous seventh inning against the Cleveland Guardians.

Once up by three runs early, the meltdown cost the Dodgers in an eventual 8-3 loss at Progressive Field.

And although it did little damage to their spot in the standings, it renewed a looming concern about their late-game options out of the bullpen — particularly to combat left-handed hitters.

Ferguson has been the Dodgers’ top lefty for most of this season. He has flashed improved stuff in his second year removed from a second Tommy John surgery, averaging a career-best 95.8 mph with his fastball. Over several extended stretches, he has been lights out too, entering Tuesday with a 2.33 ERA on the season, second-best among all Dodgers relievers.

However, Ferguson has been susceptible in several high-leverage moments, as well. He gave up three runs in a blown ninth-inning save against the Cincinnati Reds in June. He squandered four runs (all unearned) to blow another late lead against the San Diego Padres earlier this month.

Then, on Tuesday, he failed to escape the jam he inherited from starter Bobby Miller in the seventh. With two on, one out and the Dodgers holding a one-run lead, Ferguson gave up consecutive run-scoring singles to Steven Kwan and José Ramirez, then a backbreaking three-run home run to Kole Calhoun.

The outing lifted his ERA to 2.87 and his WHIP to a troubling 1.45.

More than that, it raised further doubts about Ferguson’s ability to pitch with a late lead come the postseason (particularly since his most recent playoff experience came in 2018).

The Dodgers’ problem: There are few attractive left-handed alternatives beyond Ferguson in the bullpen.

Alex Vesia was the team’s top southpaw the last two Octobers but has struggled to find consistency this year with a 5.45 ERA (though, he has a 2.87 mark since returning from the minor leagues in early July).

Victor González was a breakout star on the club’s 2020 World Series team but has yet to rediscover those heights since, owning a 4.73 ERA in mostly mop-up duty this year.

And although trade deadline acquisition Ryan Yarbrough has been valuable in his long-relief role (he has a 1.46 ERA in 12 ⅓ innings with the Dodgers spread out over four outings), his low-velocity arsenal doesn’t exactly profile as a late-game, lockdown option.

On the whole, the Dodgers’ bullpen has been trending in the right direction of late. Evan Phillips has embraced his task as the de facto closer, with 19 saves and a 2.49 ERA. Brusdar Graterol has been the group’s most productive arm, leading all relievers on the team with a 1.53 ERA.

Still, as Tuesday showed, important holes are still plaguing the team’s late-game pitching plans.

And though it won’t impede their path to another division crown, their left-handed relief options are threatening a potential October letdown.