A few hours before the first pitch of Tuesday’s game against the Rays, skipper Dave Roberts suggested to reporters that the Dodgers are toying with the idea of using an “opener” in the 2019 playoffs when the need arises for a fourth starter in the rotation.
The announcement came nearly a week after Rich Hill apparently injured his knee in a comeback bid to join the active roster. In his start against the Orioles last Thursday, the veteran lefty faced just six batters while recording two outs before Roberts was forced to replace him.
Prior to his return to the mound, Los Angeles management felt that there was enough time for Hill to build up his arm to be part of a prospective playoff rotation. However, with exactly 10 contests left in the regular season and Hill’s future uncertain, the team is now exploring other alternatives, despite Hill’s unwillingness to accept his own plight.
In Tuesday’s game, fans of the Dodgers witnessed a preview of what may happen should the club employ a bullpen type of game in the postseason. Ross Stripling was originally slated to start the contest, but Roberts opted for lefty Caleb Ferguson at the last moment, indicating that he preferred to see Strip throw out of the bullpen, a role which he’ll be embracing in the playoffs.
As it turned out, the Dodgers used a whopping eight pitchers in the 7-5 victory. Ironically, Kenta Maeda picked up the win after surrendering three earned runs, putting the game in jeopardy in the late innings and forcing Roberts to turn to Kenley Jansen for a four-out save.
Normally, the use of eight pitchers would have an adverse effect on the subsequent games, but because the team has a total of 18 pitchers on its active roster, there should not be an issue. Furthermore, the club has another scheduled day off on Thursday.
Regardless, my first thought was using Tony Gonsolin when the need came for a fourth playoff starter, and that could still be the case. The 25-year-old rookie has made eight appearances this year—six of those starts—and has posted a 3-2 record with a 2.83 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP over an even 35 innings of work.
Because of some of Gonsolin’s struggles the second and third time through the batting order, he might fit the mold of a consummate “opening” option.
On August 30 against the Diamondbacks, Gonsolin threw extremely well through five innings—he didn’t even surrender a hit until the fourth frame. In the sixth, going deeper and deeper into counts, it appeared as if he ran out of gas completely when two runs crossed the plate even before an out was recorded. He threw 92 pitches and was credited with just the five innings of work.
Similarly, in his August 24 start, Gonsolin did not allow the Yankees to get on the board until the fourth inning when Aaron Judge crushed a ball over the center field wall. Again, he was pulled after an even five innings.
The same occurred against the Braves on August 18—he was lights out until a Matt Joyce single and an Adeiny Hechavarria double plated Atlanta’s first run in the fourth inning. Gonsolin lasted just four innings in that contest.
With Gonsolin’s potential to throw a solid four frames and Stripling’s ability to pitch another effective two or three innings out of the bullpen, in theory, it could produce the same effect as a quality start. As a result, the concept of using an “opener” doesn’t seem as drastic as it sounds in some cases, especially for a club who has a strong heritage of starting pitching.
What’s more, a solid five innings out of Gonsolin may be more than enough for the Dodgers to succeed, at least in the early rounds of the postseason.
Coincidentally, 10 different pitchers made starts for the Dodgers during the 2019 season. Aside from Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Walker Buehler, Maeda and Hill’s contributions in the rotation, Stripling (14 starts), Julio Urias (eight starts), Gonsolin (six), Dustin May (four starts) and Ferguson (two) were able to pick up the remainder of the slack.
Last season, the Dodgers opted to use a fourth starter as early as Game 4 against the Braves in the NLDS. Ryu threw the opener, followed by Kersh in Game 2 and Buehler in Game 3. Hill started Game 4—the contest the Dodgers clinched their NLCS bid—and threw just 4-1/3 innings.
Gonsolin gets another chance to prove his prospective postseason value as he’s scheduled to start for the Dodgers in the final game of the series against the Rays on Wednesday. Tentatively, he’ll be opposed by Tampa lefty Brendan McKay.
First pitch is scheduled for 5:10 PM Los Angeles time.