LOS ANGELES — Over time during the last couple months, Tony Gonsolin developed a routine just to get through it. His elbow would bark as he began his regular warm-up tosses, all the way through until his last few throws in the bullpen before the national anthem. Then, he’d continue to go, letting pitches rip until the discomfort faded.
Then Gonsolin would continue to pitch, even knowing he had a tear in his ulnar collateral ligament, one that the 29-year-old right-hander will undergo Tommy John surgery for on Friday. The procedure will knock him out through next season.
The 2022 All-Star’s career trajectory has halted in part because he said he wanted to help a Dodgers rotation depleted by injury and that had as many as three rookies making regular starts at points this summer. While the organization had ongoing conversations about the possibility of shutting Gonsolin down, he kept pitching in what would be the worst season of his career.
“I was just hoping I could make it through the season, put up good numbers and just post,” Gonsolin said Tuesday. “Didn’t work out.”
The Dodgers and Gonsolin knew back in June that he had a tear in the ligament. He had complained of some discomfort between outings for a few starts, then went in and received imaging on the elbow after he threw six shutout innings but had the lowest average fastball velocity (91.1 mph) of any outing in his career. That MRI revealed the same thing his most recent scan last week showed — according to a team source, Gonsolin has a tear on the anterior side of the UCL, atypical for that sort of injury.
So why keep pitching?
Tony Gonsolin on his UCL tear: “We got some imaging done in June, so I knew the damage was in there at that time. I kind of just pitched out of necessity… I thought I could do it. It just got to the point where the stuff wasn’t performing.” pic.twitter.com/zlfZz5SqP6
— SportsNet LA (@SportsNetLA) August 30, 2023
This was different than the flexor issue he dealt with a year ago, he said. While this new injury would eventually require Tommy John surgery, it was something that surgeon Dr. Neal ElAttrache and Dodgers team doctors agreed couldn’t be made worse by continuing to pitch. Gonsolin would be out for the 2024 season regardless of whether he underwent surgery in June or on Sept. 1. The right-hander said he wanted to continue throwing “out of necessity” given the state of a Dodgers rotation that was without Dustin May and Julio Urías at the time and shortly would be without Clayton Kershaw as well.
“I thought I had full capability to do that,” Gonsolin said. He said he felt good once he got into outings, expressing some shock at some outings where his velocity even ticked up — all but one of his eight-hardest thrown pitches of the season came in late July, as his performance eroded. As his command faded, so did everything else.
“The stuff was so bad and the execution was so much worse that I don’t think it would look that pretty,” he said.
At the time of the scan, Gonsolin had a 1.93 ERA, making progress despite missing the first month of the season with a sprained ankle. In the 56 1/3 innings that followed, his decline showed in the form of a 7.51 ERA.
Though Gonsolin denied it was a factor, he had a financial incentive to keep pitching. He signed a two-year deal this spring to avoid arbitration that featured performance bonuses that could trigger for 2024 based off the number of starts or bulk outings he made this season. By continuing to pitch, Gonsolin was able to add $2 million to his $3.4 million base salary for next season. His final outing alone logged him an additional $500,000.
That last start, his 20th, also inflated his ERA to 4.98. He became the first Dodgers pitcher in 50 years to allow five home runs in a start in a 10-run disaster against the Marlins, where it all came apart at the seams.
“(Giving up) 10 runs wasn’t a good sign,” Gonsolin deadpanned.
The Dodgers have already had to plan for Gonsolin not to be part of their plans next year. May won’t be back until at least midseason due to his flexor repair and Tommy John revision. Urías and Kershaw are each free agents this winter, and Lance Lynn’s club option for next year is worth $18 million. Walker Buehler is currently working his way back from his second Tommy John surgery. They seem to prefer using Ryan Yarbrough in a bulk relief role. So that means plenty of need this winter and plenty of trust in the crop of young, controllable starting pitching that has debuted over the last two seasons in Bobby Miller, Ryan Pepiot, Gavin Stone and Emmet Sheehan.
What they’re getting out of Gonsolin in 2025 and beyond is another unknown. He has two more years of club control after next season, but had shoulder trouble in 2021 in addition to last year’s flexor issue and now the torn UCL in his right elbow. His career as a pitcher already got off to a delayed start but he blossomed last summer, going 16-1 with a 2.14 ERA and becoming a first-time All-Star. Now, he’ll have to start all over again.
“I’m actually honestly looking forward to it,” Gonsolin said. “I’m looking forward to it as a fresh start. I get to start over from the beginning. I get to use this as an opportunity to get the rest of my body in a really good spot and overall get my arm in the best shape it can be in.”
(Photo: Meg Oliphant / Getty Images)