Four hours before the Dodgers defeated the Arizona Diamondbacks 3-2 on Thursday on a walk-off hit by Mookie Betts, everyone’s eyes were riveted in blue on the pitching mound of Dodger Stadium.
Manager Dave Roberts and bench coach Bob Geren stood with folded arms at the third baseline. President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman watched as he talked to Betts. A good half dozen Dodgers pitchers leaned against the railing of the dugout and observed each pitch.
No one had to explain the obvious: what they saw could seriously affect their post-season fortunes.
Tony Gonsolin, who has been on the injured list since August 29 with a forearm strain, pitched against teammates Gavin Lux, Chris Taylor, Hanser Alberto and Miguel Vargas. The right-handed All-Star didn’t hold back, throwing his four-seam fastball, slider, curveball and split-finger fastball.
Gonsolin, whose injury interrupted a breakout season with a 16-1 record and a 2.10 ERA, entered the dugout while reliever David Price – also on the injured list – faced the same four batters. Gonsolin came back for another frame, and when he finished the two-innings simulation known as an “up-down” there was a guarded smile everywhere.
“I thought the stuff was good, the arm speed was good and he used his whole pitch mix, which was great,” said Roberts. “Assuming he comes out okay, there will be a bullpen in a few days, and then another live two-on-three inning, hopefully up-down. Really encouraging for Tony.”
Equally encouraging was the rally in the ninth inning to narrow a 2-1 deficit then enabled the Dodgers to split the four-game series. Cody Bellinger led off with a double — just missed a homerun — and Will Smith and Max Muncy walked Freddie Freeman intentionally with singles to the field to tie the score. With two outs, Betts pinched Joey Gallo, made an error on a full-count pitch and drove a single to left field to score Freeman.
Betts had the evening off, but took some hacks into the cage in the ninth inning in case he was needed.
“I was hoping not to hit,” Betts said, “but you get into a situation that calls for it and you turn on your brain and you’re good to go.”
Dodgers closer Craig Kimbrel, as wobbly as ever, was hit for Christian Walker’s homerun in the top of the ninth inning to cause a tie in a game highlighted by the dominant pitching of Diamondbacks-starter Zac Gallen, who struckout 13 and gave up only two baserunners in eight turns.
The pitcher who could be the Dodgers’ next best option as a closer – Blake Treinen – admitted on Thursday that he doesn’t know if he will be able to pitch in the playoffs.
Trains was noticeably absent during Gonsolin’s pregame prelude. Unable to shake his shoulder pain, the highly regarded reliever remained in the clubhouse talking to a member of the training staff while Gonsolin and Price pitched.
Roberts had expressed skepticism the day before that Trains would be healthy for the playoffs. The pitcher did not contradict his manager.
“The body is such a finicky thing that it’s a little hard to bounce back the way I wanted,” he said. “But I don’t think there is a definitive answer one way or the other. All I can do is try to get to a point where I can be used, where I can help the team.”
The tricky Brusdar Graterol returned from the injured list on Thursday, a welcome addition to a bullpen anchored by right-handers Evan Phillips, left-handers Alex Vesia and Kimbrel. The inclusion of Trains is weak at best.
“I would use the word frustrating,” Roberts said of Treinen’s status. “He’s not bouncing back. We’re not going to throw him for a few days, then he’s going to get a baseball on Saturday and see how he reacts.”
Gonsolin is much closer to a return and would be a huge boost. After being inactive for nearly a month, his stamina may not be enough to last more than three to four innings. Still, he gave up only 76 basehits in 128 1/3 innings.
Without him, the post-season starting rotation could be four left-handers: Julio Urías, Clayton Kershaw, Andrew Heaney and Tyler Anderson. They all enjoy good seasons, but Heaney and Anderson have no post-season experience. Right-handed Dustin May is in the mix but has been inconsistent in six starts since returning from Tommy John surgery.
“I don’t expect it to be the same build-up as before he went to the IL, but I think he gives us the opportunity to get into some valuable innings, is still in the game,” Roberts said of Gonsolin. ‘He’s starting a match? Then it’s up to us to see how long we can let him run there.’
Lux got pretty lucky against Gonsolin and Price in the simulation game, raising two fingers and urging coaches Mark Prior and Dino Ebel for him to have two hits. The coaches vetoed Lux’s claim, saying that if the defense had been in a squad, he would not have taken a hit. Lux barked back, but it was all fun.
Moments later, Lux fielded ground balls from a coach’s fungo bat until he was panting, huffing and sweating profusely. Then the game started and he made a bad decision, spinning and throwing wildly to second base after fielding a grounder to the left in the third inning. The error led to the Diamondbacks’ first run.
The Dodgers answered with two outs in the fourth against Gallen, who showed a devastating knuckle curve by retiring the first 11 batters – six with strikeouts. Smith tripled and Muncy doubled to make it 1-1.
Those were the Dodgers’ lone runners through eight innings — Gallen retired the next 13 in a row, including seven via strikeout. The righthander is going through a breakout season with a 12-3 record and a 2.46 ERA. Nevertheless, Gallen had thrown 98 pitches – 77 for strikes – and manager Torey Lovullo lifted him.
Roberts pulled Urías in favor of Phillips after the first two Diamondbacks batters put in the ball in the sixth inning – Stone Garrett doubles to left-center and Emmanuel Rivera lines in to Muncy in third place. Urías made 89 pitches – 62 strikes – while giving up three hits and striking out five. Phillips struckout two batters to end the threat, Vesia struckout three in the seventh and Graterol threw a one, two, three eighth.
Much to the Dodgers’ delight, the Diamondbacks replaced Gallen with Reyes Moronta, whom the Dodgers had assigned to the assignment a few weeks ago. Neither Moronta nor southpaw Joe Mantiply were up to the task, and Betts—his brain obviously switched on—delivered.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.