The next man up in an injury-ravaged Dodgers rotation that has churned through 10 pitchers this season — not including the four relievers used as openers — was actually the first man up.
It seems like ages ago, but Ryan Pepiot won the team’s fifth rotation spot coming out of spring training and was set to replace the injured Tony Gonsolin before suffering a left oblique strain in his final exhibition start and being placed on the 15-day injured list the day of the March 30 season opener.
Pepiot thought he would resume throwing in about two weeks and be back by the end of April, but days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months, and it would be July 14 before the 26-year-old right-hander pitched in a competitive game, when he made his first start for triple-A Oklahoma City.
“I thought it was pretty minor, but it just kept lingering, it wouldn’t go away,” Pepiot said in Dodger Stadium last weekend. “I’d feel a little better, but when I’d throw, I just couldn’t do it. I had a couple of MRIs and a CT scan, and it showed the strain was in an intercostal [muscle], which is deeper in the ribs. That was the reason it took so long.”
While Pepiot was rehabilitating at the team’s spring-training complex in Phoenix, he watched the two pitchers he beat out for that final rotation spot, Michael Grove and Gavin Stone, make their 2023 Dodgers debuts on April 3 and May 3, respectively.
Then, as injuries eventually claimed every member of the projected opening-day rotation, Pepiot watched from afar as prospects Bobby Miller and Emmet Sheehan got called up for their big league debuts, Miller on May 23 and Sheehan jumping from double-A Tulsa to Los Angeles to pitch on June 16.
“Yeah, obviously it’s there,” Pepiot said of the frustration of watching so many other pitchers bypass him en route to the big leagues, “but I was also really excited and happy for those guys I’ve come up through the system with to achieve the goal that everyone has.”
It took another injury to Gonsolin, who was placed on the 15-day injured list because of right forearm inflammation on Saturday and is expected to miss the rest of the season, for the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Pepiot to get another chance.
Pepiot, who went 3-0 with a 3.47 ERA in nine games over four stints with the Dodgers last season, was added to the roster as the 27th man for Saturday’s doubleheader against the Miami Marlins and threw five strong innings, allowing one run and three hits, striking out five and walking one, in a 3-1 Game 1 victory.
Pepiot replaced reliever Caleb Ferguson to start the second inning, and threw well enough during a crisp and efficient 75-pitch outing “to get another opportunity,” manager Dave Roberts said. Pepiot is expected to start or pitch in a bulk role following an opener as early as Thursday in Cleveland.
“I feel kind of how I felt in spring training, when I was having success, my mechanics felt good, all my pitches were in the zone and I was able to attack guys and just get people out,” said Pepiot, an Indianapolis native who was a third-round pick out of Butler in 2019. “It was as good as I’ve felt since I’ve been back.”
Pepiot was a little “rusty” in his first three triple-A starts, giving up seven runs and 12 hits, including three homers, in eight innings. But he found his groove in August, giving up three earned runs and eight hits in three starts, striking out 18 and walking three in 14 ⅔ innings.
When he threw six perfect innings before giving up a seventh-inning hit against Tacoma in his final start for Oklahoma City on Aug. 13, it was clear Pepiot was ready to return to the big leagues.
With more performances like Saturday’s against the Marlins, when Pepiot showed good command of his 94-mph fastball, a better feel for his 88-mph slider and his usually good grasp of his 86-mph changeup, he could stay for a while.
“I thought his fastball was good, but his slider was his best pitch [Saturday],” catcher Austin Barnes said. “That’s always kind of been a distant third pitch for him, but he was throwing it with a lot of conviction on that outside corner, and it was hard.
“Obviously, he’s got that good fastball that’s exploding on hitters when he’s throwing it right. I thought he did a good job against the lefties, mixing in the changeup between heaters. He didn’t really use any sliders to lefties, but I think that is a weapon in his arsenal, too.”
Though the velocity and shape of his three pitches haven’t changed much since last season, the quality of them has. Roberts said Pepiot looked “completely different” on Saturday than he did for much of 2022.
“I think last year, early on, there was some good fortune, but there just wasn’t quality in the strike-throwing,” Roberts said. “The changeup was a ball out of hand a lot arm-side. I heard from reports that his rehab outings were much better, and that’s what we saw [on Saturday]. You could see by the swings that they weren’t seeing the ball well.”
The improvement probably has more to do with Pepiot’s mental approach than any mechanical adjustments.
“I definitely feel more confident, having had that experience under my belt [from last season], to be able to go out there and know I can do it at this level and just do what I can to help the team win,” Pepiot said.
“It’s just exciting to be back here. Obviously, I would have liked to have made it sooner, but I’m here now and grateful for the opportunity. Wherever, whenever they tell me to throw, I’ll be ready.”