Loaiza doing his best to win a spot

Loaiza doing his best to win a spot

VERO BEACH, Fla. -- So Esteban Loaiza can't hit. So what? He can pitch -- the Dodgers are growing certain of that -- and that's the only skill he needs to earn a spot in the rotation.

"I haven't hit in three years," Loaiza said, defending what appeared on Friday to be his only shortcoming. "I just wanted to make contact."

He succeeded once -- a fly out to right -- but forgive the rest of the Dodgers if they weren't watching. What mattered was Loaiza's pitching, and for the third straight outing, he managed to shine. Friday's game saw him throw five innings of one-run ball against the Cardinals, lowering his Grapefruit League ERA to 3.00. And if center fielder Jason Repko hadn't let Rick Ankiel's home run ball drop out of his glove and over the fence, those statistics would have shined even brighter.

That's significant. Every last number is significant for Loaiza, who has been fighting for a job since arriving in Dodgertown last month. Sort of.

"That's Esteban's job for somebody else to take from him," pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said. "That's his spot until someone can prove they're better than him."

Enter the challengers. The Dodgers thought Jason Schmidt might be one, until it became clear that Opening Day wasn't a realistic weight to put on Schmidt's surgically repaired right shoulder. Pockets of fans hoped 19-year-old Clayton Kershaw might be one, too, but the Dodgers would prefer to keep their whiz kid stashed in the Minors for now.

That leaves Chan Ho Park, who made only one Major League start last season, but has yet to allow a run in seven innings this spring. Park, for now, remains the only reason why Loaiza might still look over his shoulder while he walks to the mound.

"There's pressure when you want there to be pressure," Loaiza said. "I feel comfortable throwing, and if you feel no pressure you're going to be fine."

Some other Dodgers could use the advice. As impressive as Loaiza seemed on Saturday, his outing contrasted quite starkly with that of reliever Yhency Brazoban, who allowed another two runs and ballooned his Grapefruit League ERA to 14.73.

Like Loaiza, Brazoban is fighting for a job. Unlike Loaiza, he appears to be losing.

"We'll obviously give him every benefit of the doubt," Honeycutt said. "It's like anybody else. It's a competition, and your performance dictates what will be next."

Brazoban has insisted that he's healthy, so that's one concern checked off the list. After bursting onto the scene with the Dodgers back in 2004, Brazoban saw shoulder and elbow injuries limit him to just 6 2/3 innings over the past two seasons. Which is reason for a healthy dose of skepticism around Dodgertown.

"He could obviously be a big piece," Honeycutt said. "But you have to also realize it's been several years. He's maybe not where other guys are. He started a little behind, and the next step is to see what's best for him."

And what's best for the Dodgers.

Injured closer Takashi Saito, battling a right-calf injury all spring, should pitch in his first Grapefruit League game on Saturday. If he can begin the season back in the bullpen -- and not, say, on the disabled list -- then that's one less spot available for Brazoban.

Yet there's still a battle here, until the coaching staff says otherwise. Non-roster invitee Mike Myers, once considered a dark horse to make the team after a strong start to his spring, has since fallen into uncertainty after two straight poor outings -- the second of which came in the wake of Brazoban's struggles on Friday.

Jason Johnson, another non-roster invitee, has faced a similar situation.

Then there's Hong-Chih Kuo, who struggled mightily as a starting pitcher last season. Kuo won't be asked to start the year in the rotation, but he's out of Minor League options. That could give the Dodgers incentive to keep him.

There are plenty more. Eric Stults, Greg Miller and others have nothing guaranteed. So what's clear is that there's a certain murkiness at the back end of the Dodgers bullpen, and Brazoban has only clouded the situation with his recent struggles.

What's also clear is that there are still plenty of opportunities for jobs to be won.

Just ask Loaiza.

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.