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Will Smith returns for Dodgers, Michael Grove recovers after bumpy start

MLB: Spring Training-Cleveland Guardians at Los Angeles Dodgers Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

With the 13 position players for the opening day roster already set, Thursday’s 11-5 loss to the Diamondbacks at Salt River Fields in Scottsdale was a chance for several Dodgers regulars to get some work in.

Six members of the opening day roster started this one for the Dodgers, and it likely wasn’t a higher number only because of the long trip eastward across the Arizona valley.

Dave Roberts after Wednesday night’s game mentioned on SportsNet LA that Mookie Betts, just back from the World Baseball Classic, would play in a minor league game Thursday so he could get several at-bats. Same for designated hitter J.D. Martinez.

On Thursday morning, Roberts added that Betts will play in four of the Dodgers’ final five exhibition games, only missing getaway day on Saturday.

As for the regulars who did play, Will Smith welcomed himself back from the WBC with a double in his first at-bat, then scored on a Chris Taylor hit, which has been few and far between this spring.

James Outman, on the day he found out he would make his first opening day roster, doubled home Taylor. David Peralta later doubled as well.

Peralta, Smith, and Freddie Freeman each batted three times on Thursday, while Outman, Taylor, and Jason Heyward got four trips to the plate

A long opening frame

Those aforementioned hits helped the Dodgers score three in the top of the first inning, yet that was mostly an afterthought, for two reasons: (1) the D-backs put up a 10-spot in the bottom of the inning, and (2) the entire first inning took 39 minutes, so it’s likely nobody remembered far back enough to think about what happened at the start.

Michael Grove loaded the bases with a single and two walks, then after striking out Christian Walker, the right-hander allowed a two-run single. Grove was pulled after needing 23 pitches for just five batters and out out, with Dave Roberts utilizing the re-entry rule for pitchers that is allowed during spring training.

That brought in left-hander Julian Smith, one of the group of minor league pitchers who travel with teams in case they need fresh arms for whatever reason. For Smith, who had a 5.29 ERA with 54 strikeouts and 30 walks in 51 innings last year for High-A Great Lakes, this was his very first Cactus League game. It did not go well.

Arizona teed off on Smith, getting six hits in seven at-bats, including three home runs and a double. The 25-year-old allowed Grove’s two bequeathed runners to score, then six more of his own, which got Smith pulled in favor of Marshall Kasowski, giving the Dodgers three pitchers to record one out each in the first inning.

The first inning probably didn’t help Grove’s chances of winning the final starting rotation spot, but what he did once he returned to the game was impressive just the same. Because the Dodgers played on Thursday at Salt River Fields, the only Cactus League park with Statcast data, we can see that Grove’s slider was particularly effective, getting eight swinging strikes with that pitch alone, plus three more called strikes despite only throwing the slider 22 times.

Grove retired 12 of his 13 batters faced after the re-do, allowing only a double in four scoreless frames, needing only 45 pitches the rest of the way. Thursday was Grove’s sixth start this spring. Ryan Pepiot, also vying for the vacant rotation spot, has pitched in five games. Grove’s 4⅓ innings Thursday was his longest outing to date; Pepiot lasted 4⅔ innings on Wednesday.

There are more things that go into evaluation that merely the performance in spring games, but here’s how the two compare in Cactus League play.

5th starter competition

Pitcher IP H R/ER HR BB (rate) K ERA WHIP FIP
Pitcher IP H R/ER HR BB (rate) K ERA WHIP FIP
Grove 16⅔ 15 10 3 3 (4.5%) 17 (25.8%) 5.40 1.080 4.04
Pepiot 13⅔ 14 5 0 5 (8.8%) 19 (33.3%) 3.29 1.390 1.52
FIP is just an estimate

Whether the competition for the rotation spot goes down to one final outing for both pitchers during the Freeway Series in Anaheim remains to be seen. But if I’m picking now, Pepiot would open the season in the rotation, with Grove the next arm up from Triple-A until Tony Gonsolin returns.

Up next

No more bus trips for the Dodgers after Thursday’s trip back to the west side of the valley, as their last two spring games in Arizona are at Camelback Ranch. Next up is Friday against the Brewers (1:05 p.m., SportsNet LA), with Julio Urías making the start, very likely after he gets officially named the club’s opening day starter in the morning.