The Dodgers are looking at how their rotation options are wired


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SAN DIEGO — The Los Angeles Dodgers can consider Friday to be a minor milestone. Not because of what happened in their spirited two-out, eighth-inning rally in their 10-5 comeback win at Petco Park, which put the San Diego Padres a whopping 10 games back in the division. But because of a minor field trip some 45 minutes north to Oceanside, where Walker Buehler toed the slab in a mostly empty warehouse at Titleist Performance Institute, covered head to toe in wires.

It has been 346 days since Buehler had the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow replaced for a second time, answering some of the lingering questions and discomfort that had plagued him for months. It’s wise not to pin too many hopes on Buehler to emerge as any sort of savior for a rotation that has struggled this season, or even be ready for full-fledged starts. The track record for two-time Tommy John recipients is such that caution is the default setting. Buehler has rejected that, issuing a bold, Sept. 1 expected return date to a big-league mound. Friday was at least enough reason to generate optimism.

The 29-year-old right-hander has progressed well enough that he visited the off-campus site to ask more questions. Among the institute’s staff is former big-league pitcher Tom House, a guru to pitchers, quarterbacks and golfers alike in exploring how the body moves. In throwing in front of House, Dr. Greg Rose and Dodgers assistant pitching coach Connor McGuiness, Buehler was curious what he could do to bring his mechanics back to the efficient, electric force he was when he finished in the top five in NL Cy Young voting in 2021.

So, they strapped him up for a motion-capture session that also served as one of the final checkpoints before Buehler begins to face hitters for the first time next week. Their suggestions, McGuiness said, will likely be imperceptible to the untrained eye. But what McGuiness saw left an impression.

“(He) looks like Walker,” McGuiness said, beaming.

Another one of the facility’s clients sat and observed in awe before asking if he could step in and watch Buehler’s offerings firsthand from the batter’s box.

And that’s why the first (unofficial) batter Buehler faced after surgery was none other than reigning Masters champion Jon Rahm. The golf star marveled at the precision Buehler demonstrated. His ability to master a minuscule strike zone while practically putting the ball on a tee wowed the 28-year-old Spaniard.

Surely, Rahm would’ve appreciated how well James Outman read the ball’s spin off Fernando Tatis Jr.’s bat Friday night. The Padres slugger connected on a 100 mph pitch from Dodgers rookie starter Bobby Miller with ease and nearly drove the ball out of the ballpark — before Outman leaped and took it away. It was an omen for the kind of loud contact that Miller would need to work through all night.

Miller has provided the most hope out of a rookie crop of starters that came in highly touted and has gotten a heap of growing pains early. Ryan Pepiot made the Opening Day rotation but hasn’t thrown a pitch this year. Gavin Stone tossed six no-hit innings and struck out 10 on Friday night for Oklahoma City, but his first few cracks at the bigs didn’t inspire much confidence. Michael Grove has been knocked around in the rotation and could soon rejoin Emmet Sheehan, who was sent back to the minors Friday afternoon as the Dodgers reshuffled arms. Landon Knack has yet to make his debut but only has six Triple-A starts to his name.

That leaves Miller as the best rookie standing in this rotation on an evening that showed he, too, still has some growing pains.

“For Bobby, every start, the goal, and the expectation is he takes something from it,” Dave Roberts said. “It was still a good outing for Bobby (tonight), but I still feel like there’s some growth in there (to be had).”

The right-hander demonstrated his typical premium velocity and allowed just two runs (one earned), but got hit hard, ran deep counts and navigated traffic as he went just two times through San Diego’s order before Roberts came and took the ball with two outs in the fourth inning. It was a brief outing for a club in the midst of a stretch of 13 consecutive games without an off day. It’s one of several critical nights as Miller makes his case to be part of the biggest nights in the remaining two months.

“The biggest goal is you want to be a ‘count-on’ guy when you’re out there,” Miller said. “Just got to make improvements each time out there to be able to become that ‘count-on’ guy.”

Bobby Miller pitches during the second inning Friday against the Padres. (Denis Poroy / Getty Images)

The Dodgers weren’t expecting to have to count on a rookie at all this spring. But this is a rotation that entered with a 4.68 ERA this season, 21st in the majors. As McGuiness will point out, they’ve struggled to miss bats. After ranking eighth in baseball a year ago with a 23.9 percent strikeout rate from the rotation, that figure has dropped to 21.6 percent.

They need answers. That comes even with Clayton Kershaw due back this week and a deadline period that added Lance Lynn and Ryan Yarbrough into the starting mix but seemed to promise so much more. But an agreement Monday night to acquire the Detroit Tigers’ Eduardo Rodriguez fell through when the left-hander invoked his no-trade clause (in part, as The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported, because he wanted the Dodgers to add a year and $20 million to the remaining three years and $49 million he’d be owed if he didn’t use his opt-out this winter). Other pursuits for arms such as Justin Verlander, Jordan Montgomery, Dylan Cease, James Paxton and even three-team deals aimed at landing another starter were unsuccessful.

If there’s any solace for Los Angeles’ deadline, it’s that much of the rest of the division saw Tuesday come and go without adding the type of impact talent the Dodgers were seemingly positioned to land.

So this is the group that’s left. One that’s suddenly even more reliant on Kershaw being healthy. Or on Julio Urías and Tony Gonsolin figuring it out. Or for Lynn to start keeping the ball in the yard with his MLB-leading 31 homers allowed and for Yarbrough — a last-minute add — to thrive even outside of the barren AL Central.

And yes, they have to dream about Buehler, too. A relatively quiet deadline means banking more on internal improvements and positive outcomes than even the eternal optimist could typically stomach without some heartburn relief medicine.

At least for Friday, they were able to slug through it once again, tallying five runs against a reliever in Robert Suarez who dominated them in October. They added three more in the ninth as the Padres tripped over wires of their own to give the Dodgers another thing to smile about.

(Photo of James Outman of the Dodgers leaping at the wall and catching a ball hit by the Padres’ Fernando Tatis Jr.: Gregory Bull / Associated Press)

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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