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With Tony Gonsolin back, the Dodgers have a full starting rotation again

Tony Gonsolin makes his 2021 debut on Wednesday in Pittsburgh

Colorado Rockies v Los Angeles Dodgers

For the first time in five weeks, the Dodgers will have an actual, five-pitcher starting rotation, when Tony Gonsolin starts the middle game of the series against the Pirates on Wednesday. It’s a welcome return to normal for a staff that has scrambled to fill innings since Dustin May suffered a season-ending elbow injury on May 1.

“I think we’ve managed pretty well with those four bullpen games,” manager Dave Roberts said Tuesday. “But having the ability to distribute the bullpen usage a little bit, to potentially cut back on usage from a couple guys, is only a good thing.”

Since May went down, the Dodgers have played 32 games. The immediate fill-in starting options either weren’t available — Gonsolin on the injured list with right shoulder inflammation, top prospect Josiah Gray suffering a shoulder impingement in Triple-A — or, in the case of David Price and Jimmy Nelson, more suited and needed in a depleted bullpen.

Thanks to some off days, they’ve only had to fill May’s spot in the rotation four times since his injury. The Dodgers used bullpen games each time, plus another bullpen game one day before May’s injury, and haven’t allowed more than three runs in any of those games.

The cost has come in other forms, either from having fewer relievers available in days before and after the bullpen game, or having to carry an extra pitcher, leaving the team with a short bench, and reduced maneuverability later in games.

Clayton Kershaw, Trevor Bauer, Walker Buehler, and Julio Urías helped pick up a considerable amount of slack, and were able to sweep many of the potential problems under the rug. Dodgers starting pitchers, counting May and the first pitchers of the five bullpen games, lead the majors in innings per start and strikeout rate, and rank in the top four in ERA and FIP.

But the quartet of healthy starters has been relied upon heavily, and since May’s injury suffered declines in ERA and walk rate, are allowing a few more home runs, and aren’t going as deep into games.

The four horsemen of the Dodgers rotation

Starts Team record IP/start ERA BB rate K rate HR rate
Starts Team record IP/start ERA BB rate K rate HR rate
22 14-8 6.39 2.69 3.87% 28.23% 3.14%
28 17-11 5.99 3.27 6.77% 28.27% 3.61%
Splits here for Kershaw, Bauer, Buehler, and Urías, for before and after Dustin May’s injury.

The performance over the last five weeks has been perfectly fine, just not as good as it was in April. With Gonsolin able to go at least five innings every fifth game or so, it’s less of a strain on the bullpen. Roberts said it was fair to expect he might use the bullpen more aggressively to ease some of the burden off those first four starters, especially with both David Price and Jimmy Nelson now available for more high-leverage situations.

The rotation should get a boost, too, by adding Gonsolin, who had the best FIP (2.29), highest FanGraphs WAR (1.8), and second-best ERA (2.31) and walk rate (4 percent) on the staff last season, all while allowing only two home runs in 46⅔ innings.

For Gonsolin, it means a chance to finally pitch in a major league game this season.

The right-hander began the season on the opening day roster, but before the first series was over he already landed on the injured list, with right shoulder inflammation.

“I hadn’t really felt sore before that. I thought it was just a little soreness, but I tried to throw another outing and it was really acting up during that,” Gonsolin explained on Tuesday. “It just got a little worse from there, and felt a lot more uncomfortable.”

Gonsolin stayed with the Dodgers for a while before ultimately continuing his rehab at Camelback Ranch in Arizona. Much like Cody Bellinger missing 46 games with a fractured fibula, and Zach McKinstry out for 33 games with an oblique strain, Gonsolin being out for two months had a mental toll as well as physical.

“There was a little section towards the latter half of my rehab, kind of during my build-up process, where I felt a little disconnected from the team. I didn’t really talk to too much of those guys,” Gonsolin said. “It’s good to be back in the clubhouse, talking to them every day and hanging out with them.”

Gonsolin pitched three games on a minor league rehab assignment with Triple-A Oklahoma City, posting a 3.48 ERA with nine strikeouts in 10⅓ innings before joining the Dodgers on the current road trip. His last two outings were each 3⅔ innings, though his last one was cut short after 60 pitches by a stomach ailment.

Roberts said Gonsolin is built up to a point where he could throw 75 pitches in his first time out, and will be the fifth starter going forward.

“I haven’t had an outing where I felt like I was getting tired, so that’s definitely a positive,” Gonsolin said. “Whatever Doc needs for [Wednesday], I’m ready for it, to take that task.”

Game info

Teams: Dodgers (35-25) at Pirates (23-36)

Location: PNC Park, Pittsburgh

Time: 4:05 p.m. PT

TV: SportsNet LA