When you’ve won 110 games, when you’ve cruised along the National League West road to a division title without even a glance in the rearview mirror, you can afford to experiment a little.
And Monday night’s 2-1 loss to the Colorado Rockies at Dodger Stadium all but turned into a glorified live batting practice session for Tony Gonsolin, the Dodgers’ All-Star right-hander returning from a forearm strain that had kept him out of the rotation since Aug. 23.
But squint hard enough and there were playoff stakes. A strong few innings for Gonsolin meant comfortably locking in a guy with a 2.14 earned-run average as a Game 3 or 4 starter for the NL Division Series. A shaky start meant reevaluating — perhaps tossing left-hander Andrew Heaney into the mix or piecing together a bullpen game.
“It’d be a big confidence boost,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said before the game about the comfort a strong outing from Gonsolin would bring. “Not only for myself but for Tony.”
Consider that confidence in question.
Gonsolin threw just two innings Monday, one clean and one messy across 40 pitches. Roberts said before the game that the Dodgers primarily would be evaluating Gonsolin’s velocity, slider and splitter as he worked back from a long stint on the injured list.
“If we can get through three innings and he comes out of it feeling good, I think we can get to the next step,” Roberts said.
The report card:
Velocity — good as new but with spotty command. Gonsolin quickly ramped up his fastball to his season average of 93mph. After a breezy first inning, though, Colorado’s Elias Díaz and Sean Bouchard lined a single and double, respectively, off Gonsolin four-seamers.
Slider — meh. It has been Gonsolin’s most effective pitch all season in terms of on-base-plus-slugging percentage allowed, but he had trouble locating it. His one run given up came off a second-inning slider that the Rockies’ Alan Trejo punched into right field for an RBI single.
Splitter — quiet at first, then dynamite. Faced with a first-and-third jam in the second inning after Trejo’s single, Gonsolin struck out Ezequiel Tovar and Michael Toglia on splitters to escape.
Work out the grade-point average and it was a promising-at-times effort that fell slightly short of Roberts’ goal.
“Just comes down to executing pitches, and I feel like I didn’t do a great job of that,” Gonsolin said.
However, Gonsolin said with progression he would feel comfortable throwing more innings in a playoff game.
Roberts said afterward that if Gonsolin throws well in a simulated game Sunday, he could see the starter going four innings in an NLDS start.
After Gonsolin left the game, seven Dodgers relievers got a look before the ninth inning, holding the score at 1-1 after Trayce Thompson hit a solo homer in the third for the Dodgers.
Point made: If the Dodgers are forced into a bullpen game come mid-October, the cavalry is ready and able.
“It may be unique to not have more defined roles, especially leading into the postseason,” right-hander Evan Phillips said before the game. “But we’ve proven that we can do it this way.”
Proven just fine — until the bullpen gate opens for the ninth inning. The inning has been a thorn in the Dodgers’ side all season and hasn’t been solved simply because Craig Kimbrel was demoted from the closer’s role. Roberts turned to Brusdar Graterol, who notched a save Saturday, for the final inning and was burned as Graterol surrendered an RBI single to Toglia to put the Rockies ahead 2-1.
In the bottom of the ninth, Freddie Freeman nearly won the game with a deep drive to right field after Trea Turner singled. But Colorado’s Randal Grichuk tracked it down at the wall.
“When you’re sniffing the finish line of the regular season, that little edge might not be quite as automatic,” Roberts said of the team’s recent offensive struggles.
The result, ultimately, was of little importance. Stakes for a pitching plan come the postseason, however, were set.
Taylor out of lineup
The Dodgers could enter postseason play without a key playoff hero of years past. Outfielder Chris Taylor was out of the lineup for a third straight day after neck tightness persisted.
“When you’re talking about the neck, there’s a lot of things you have to be dynamic,” Roberts said. “I am concerned.”