Tony Gonsolin’s first pitch Saturday night was belted 426 feet to center field for a home run, an inauspicious start for a Dodgers right-hander whose hold on a rotation spot, based on the pregame comments of his own manager, was beginning to seem a little tenuous.
Whether Gonsolin heard the voice of Dave Roberts or not, he pitched the rest of the night like a man fighting for a job, allowing no runs, only two more hits, striking out six and walking none through six innings of an eventual 4-1 victory over the Colorado Rockies before 52,515 in Chavez Ravine.
Will Smith hit a solo home run in the first inning, James Outman hit a two-run homer in the second, and Amed Rosario added a solo shot in the seventh, as the Dodgers (70-46) extended their winning streak to seven, won for the 11th time in 12 games and extended their National League West lead over San Francisco to 8½ games.
Dodgers relievers Ryan Brasier, Brusdar Graterol and Evan Phillips closed the game with scoreless innings, Phillips striking out the side in the ninth for his 17th save.
“I thought it was his best outing in quite some time,” Roberts said of Gonsolin. “I thought every throw had conviction. He had good fastball command. He made pitches when he needed to, pounded the strike zone, used his entire mix, front to back, top to bottom, in and out. … I think he understands the expectations, the bar, for him, for us. He realized it tonight.”
A solid start against Colorado wouldn’t thrust any pitcher into Cy Young Award contention. The worst-in-the-league Rockies traded two of their best hitters, C.J. Cron and Randal Grichuk, to the Angels in late July and rank 23rd in baseball in runs and homers and 22nd in on-base-plus-slugging percentage.
But Saturday night was a marked improvement over the typical so-so starts Gonsolin had delivered for most of the past 3½ months.
He shook off Ezequiel Tovar’s leadoff homer to strike out two of the next three batters in the first inning, he retired the side in order in the second, third and fifth innings and pitched around Ryan McMahon’s leadoff double in the fourth.
Though the 91.4-mph average velocity of Gonsolin’s four-seam fastball was down from his season average of 92.5 mph, he mixed his split-fingered fastball and slider with his heater effectively, getting six of his 14 swinging strikes with his splitter.
Gonsolin got a little defensive help from Outman, who made a nice running, jumping catch of a Brendan Rodgers drive to the wall with a runner aboard to end the top of the sixth, preserving a 3-1 lead.
“If I’ve learned anything this year, it’s that if you get hit in the face, you just keep going,” Gonsolin said of the first-pitch homer he allowed. “But I thought I did a much better job of executing pitches today.
“I feel like the delivery was better. It was a lot more consistent. Kind of an adjustment I made a couple of bullpens ago, just throwing out of the stretch. I think I’m able to repeat pitches and repeat the throw more often.”
Gonsolin’s overall numbers this season aren’t awful — he’s 8-4 with a 4.24 ERA in 19 starts, striking out 80 and walking 36 in 99⅔ innings, after missing the first month of the season because of a left-ankle sprain.
But he hasn’t been nearly as dominant or as consistent as he was in 2022, when he went 16-1 with a 2.14 ERA in 24 starts and made his first All-Star team before suffering a forearm strain in late August.
Gonsolin isn’t in danger of losing his rotation spot — the Dodgers have such a huge lead in the division, they can afford to keep running him out to the mound in hopes that he’ll regain his 2022 form.
But with Clayton Kershaw returning from a shoulder injury on Thursday, Julio Urias starting to regain his 2022 form, recently acquired Lance Lynn winning his first three starts and hard-throwing rookie right-hander Bobby Miller emerging as a force, it would be difficult to justify including Gonsolin in a postseason rotation right now.
“Yeah, it’s no secret that the last … it’s been a while that he hasn’t pitched well, to be quite frank,” Roberts said before the game. “Given the way other guys are throwing the baseball, he’s gonna have to pitch well, and I think he’d be the first to tell you that.
“But as we started getting guys back and we start kind of honing in on the end of the season, we’re going to go with our best pitchers, and that’s the way it should be.”
Roberts said he couldn’t pinpoint a specific cause for Gonsolin’s struggles. The velocity of his four-seam fastball has dropped gradually over four seasons, from an average of 95.1 mph in 2020 to 93.8 mph in 2021, 93.1 mph in 2022 and 92.5 mph this season, but there wasn’t a precipitous drop from 2022 to 2023.
Gonsolin’s splitter has been effective, holding batters to a .175 average (20 for 114) in at-bats ending with the pitch entering Saturday, but not as good as it was last season (.113 opponents average) and in 2021 (.106).
“The only thing I can say is the execution just isn’t there,” Roberts said. “That could speak to something. But the velocity at times looks the same. The delivery looks the same. He executes some really good splits and sliders at times. But the overall consistency of his pitches hasn’t been there.”
Freddie Freeman was pulled after being hit in the right kneecap by a pitch in the seventh inning, but the first baseman, who has started every one of the team’s first 116 games, declined an X-ray and said he expects to play on Sunday. “It hurt, and I had a bit of a wobbly leg there for a second,” Freeman said after the game, “but I got some ice, and I feel all right.” … Reliever Yency Almonte was placed on the 15-day injured list because of a right-knee sprain, an injury the right-hander suffered when his cleat got caught in a hole in front of the rubber in the ninth inning of Friday night’s 6-1 win over the Rockies. Left-hander Victor González was recalled. … Mookie Betts was scratched from Saturday night’s game because of a stomach virus, but Roberts expects the dynamic leadoff man to return to the lineup on Sunday.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.