Hong-Chih Kuo is contending for the fifth-starter job, but countryman Chin-hui Tsao is pitching his way into the crowded bullpen picture. His perfect inning against Cleveland on Sunday included two strikeouts, one of them being Indians star Travis Hafner, and a 95-mph fastball, fastest of the five Dodgers pitching Sunday.
Tsao was non-tendered by the Rockies in December after missing the entire 2006 season and most of 2005 with shoulder labrum and rotator cuff problems. He underwent arthroscopic surgery in May 2005 and hasn't pitched in a regular-season game since.
Tsao opened the 2005 season on the disabled list, was activated long enough to convert three of his four career saves for Colorado, then was disabled and never returned. He has a 5.80 ERA in parts of three Major League seasons.
He was signed in 1999 to a $2.2 million bonus and underwent Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery in 2001. Finally healthy in 2003, he spent half of a season dominating in Double-A, then was promoted to the Major Leagues, where he made eight starts. His shoulder problems surfaced the next spring, limiting him to 9 1/3 Major League innings in 2004.
In seven professional seasons, Tsao has 63 2/3 Major League innings. Saying he's healthy for the first time since 2004, Tsao still figures to start the season at Triple-A Las Vegas.
"I'm just going every day and I hope I make it," Tsao said. "It's a big difference when my arm doesn't hurt."
He needs the innings after missing so much time, and the Dodgers' bullpen appears loaded with Takashi Saito, Jonathan Broxton, Joe Beimel, Chad Billingsley, Elmer Dessens, along with the losers in the fifth-starter competition that includes Kuo, Brett Tomko and Mark Hendrickson and non-roster contenders like Rudy Seanez and Matt White.
But there's still two weeks left of exhibition games and stranger things have happened than Tsao, who briefly was the Rockies' closer, making the staff.
"Early on we wanted to see the arm strength, and he's shown us that," said pitching coach Rick Honeycutt. "He's making a great impression. He's on the radar screen. He's given us no reason to think he can't pitch."
Tsao has pitched six innings in six games, allowing one earned run with eight strikeouts and two walks. Catcher Sandy Martinez was impressed.
"He throws the fastball, and it's not down the middle and he throws his slider in any count to keep them off-balance," Martinez said. "You see him with confidence like he thinks he belongs at this level."
Abreu improves: Tony Abreu said he had never tried a head-first dive until his train-wreck of an attempt Saturday that left him sidelined for 2-4 weeks with a bone bruise. Coach Mariano Duncan said he remembers Abreu sliding head-first in Rookie ball in 2003.
Regardless, Abreu said Sunday he was much improved the day after the injury, suffered when Abreu began his dive too late. His arms were not extended and he hit the ground elbow first, which jammed his left arm into the shoulder socket.
"I thought it was dislocated when it happened, it hurt so bad," Abreu said, explaining why he lay motionless. "I didn't know how serious it was, and I didn't want to move. It's much better today."
Lowe not down: Sunday starter Derek Lowe was charged with four runs (two earned) and was removed when he reached his pitch count of 75 after 4 1/3 innings, but Lowe considered it a success.
"Other than a horrendous changeup, I'm happy with it," he said, flipping the clubhouse television between an NCAA tournament basketball game and a NASCAR race. "I'm happy with my command start to start. Fortunately, my changeup was so bad, it was unhittable."
Tim Hamulack was brought in to face left-hander Hafner, but allowed an inherited runner to score on a ground single, then was late covering first on an infield single. Chad Billingsley allowed his first run of the spring in one inning.
Third baseman Andy LaRoche doubled, but also committed his seventh error of the spring.
"Early in camp, he had a little tough time and it may have created a situation where he's pressing down there," said manager Grady Little. "We're working on getting him to regain his confidence.
Back to back: Relievers Saito and Beimel are scheduled to pitch Monday and double-back in Tuesday night's game against the Cardinals in Vero Beach. That will mark the first time this spring either pitcher has pitched in games on consecutive days.
Coming up: Randy Wolf starts for the Dodgers on Monday at Viera against Shawn Hill and the Washington Nationals. Wolf is returning to game action after throwing in a simulated game five days earlier. Elmer Dessens and Seanez, who might be fighting for the same bullpen spot, are also scheduled to pitch.
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less