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Jimmy Nelson, the Dodgers’ new ‘2-inning monster’

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Dave Roberts: “I thought the stuff would play if he was healthy, as it has, but I didn’t realize the command he has of his mix.”

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at Cincinnati Reds Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

On Monday, the Dodgers finalized the starting rotation to open the season, and in doing so gave themselves a unique bullpen with both former closers and starters who can pitch in multiple roles. The most interesting of the bunch is Jimmy Nelson, who is healthy again after basically three years in limbo.

Nelson pitched an inning in Monday’s Freeway Series win over the Angels, and like nearly all of his spring outings, this one was scoreless. He struck out two and allowed a double, and his spring training ERA is 0.00 in eight innings — he allowed one unearned run in his five Cactus League games.

“I thought the stuff would play if he was healthy, as it has, but I didn’t realize the command he has of his mix,” manager Dave Roberts said Monday night. “The two-seamer, the four-seamer, the slider and the curveball. Just the command overall, he’s done a really good job, from his side sessions into the games. I’m really, really pleased.”

The stuff was on display Monday night, namely his four-seam fastball, his knuckle curve — thrown seven times, inducing two whiffs and a called strike — and his slider. Max Bay at Dodgers Digest dug deeper into Nelson’s repertoire on Tuesday.

The fastball on Monday, per Baseball Savant, averaged 95 mph, up a tick from his breakout season of 2017, when Nelson had a 3.49 ERA and 3.05 FIP in 175⅓ innings, with a 27.3-percent strikeout rate that ranked 11th in MLB among qualified starters.

In the three years since that breakout season, Nelson has pitched only 22 major league innings, with his time mostly consumed by injury rehab. After the 2017 season he had surgery to repair the rotator cuff and labrum tear in his right shoulder. His comeback the next season was cut short by swelling in his right elbow, and when he signed with the Dodgers in 2020 he battled problems throughout spring training before ultimately having back surgery in July before the season even got started. That’s a lot of time on the 60-day injured list.

“When you’re not grinding through injuries and pain and stuff, you can actually enjoy the game,” Nelson said this spring. “It’s been a long time, and I’m just trying to enjoy it every day.”

Nelson this time around made the Dodgers roster as a non-roster invitee, after signing a minor league deal that will pay him $1.25 million in the majors, plus bonuses. How the Dodgers handled him during his rehabilitation from back surgery last year helped his decision to return to the team.

“The way the medical staff works, this training staff, the coaches is just one. Everybody works together really well. Everybody helps you in every single aspect of it,” Nelson said. “It just makes development and everything much easier, much more comfortable.”

This spring, Nelson struck out 11 of his 30 batters faced (36.7 percent), walking only one. He’s one of eight viable starting pitchers the Dodgers will have on their opening day roster, though his role for now is in the bullpen. His longest outing this spring was two innings, and it doesn’t sound like the Dodgers plan to stretch him out any longer than that, at least in relief, mindful of his recent injury history.

“I think if you look at David [Price] and Tony [Gonsolin], they’re more two to four innings, ideally, where Jimmy is more of a two-inning monster or something like that,” Roberts said. “Obviously, he’s gone through a lot of health stuff over the last few years. So to get him pitching, but to make sure he’s fully recovered ready to take on that next outing, is really important.”