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Emmet Sheehan pitched himself into potential postseason role with strong finish

San Francisco Giants v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — Rookie pitchers had an outsized role on the Dodgers pitching staff during the regular season, and many will factor heavily into their postseason plans. But among the first-year hurlers, nobody improved their stock in September like Emmet Sheehan.

When Sheehan was optioned on August 4 — after a perfectly-timed four-inning save — it felt like a send off to his first major league season. The right-hander had his share of successes in his first stint, but also had a 5.63 ERA and 5.13 FIP, plus the Dodgers were getting Clayton Kershaw back and had just acquired Lance Lynn and Ryan Yarbrough.

Sheehan only pitched three times for Oklahoma City — his first games in Triple-A, because he was called up to the majors directly from Double-A back in June — bringing his innings total to 101⅓ innings between the majors and minors, up slightly from 80⅓ innings in 2022.

He was called back up to the majors on September 1 when rosters expanded, in part because Sheehan was the only healthy pitcher remaining on the 40-man roster at the time, but it seemed like it could have been temporary with a handful of pitchers on the injured list potentially returning soon.

Instead, Sheehan seized the opportunity with his best extended run of major league success to date.

“When you get sent down to the minors, it’s a reminder that you’re fighting for your life,” Sheehan said Wednesday, a day after he pitched in an intrasquad scrimmage at Dodger Stadium in preparation for the National League Division Series against the D-backs, which starts Saturday in Los Angeles.

In September, Sheehan had a 3.68 ERA and 4.35 FIP in his five games, four of which were starts. He struck out six and held the slugging Braves to only one run in four innings, and in his final two starts set career highs for strikeouts in each one — fanning nine Giants without allowing a hit on September 21, then whiffing 10 Rockies over six innings at Coors Field.

“The fastball conviction, life in the strike zone, the quality of strikes with the fastball improved greatly in those last four or five outings,” manager Dave Roberts said. “Now he’s using his secondary pitches to get swing-and-miss, to get ahead in the count, to get back in the count layered in with his fastball. It’s been a really good mix. For me, he’s not a one-trick pony.”

“It felt good to string a few good games together, to see that consistency,” Sheehan said.

Sheehan’s 39-percent strikeout rate over the season’s final month led the team, and his 34 strikeouts in total were second only to Bobby Miller on the staff. The reset in Triple-A in August helped Sheehan regain what he had in Tulsa — 1.86 ERA, 41.7-percent strikeout rate — that made the Dodgers call him up directly from Double-A in the first place.

“Getting his routine dialed in and understanding that he belongs here, but that he can not only compete but really handle major league hitters,” said general manager Brandon Gomes. “Now that he’s come back up, there’s a different level of confidence and focus on what he knows he needs to do.”

Even with that strong performance in September, Sheehan’s roster status for October remains in question. Given the three off days in the best-of-five National League Division Series, and teams’ ability to potentially use only three starting pitchers during the series, and with more rest top-end arms in the back end of the bullpen can pitch more often, Sheehan’s services as a bulk pitcher might not be required until the later rounds, should the Dodgers advance.

But his ascendance up the depth chart has been duly noted.

“Just having the opportunity for him to play October baseball is a feat in itself,” Roberts said.