So far this season, starting pitching has been one of the Dodgers’ biggest strengths.
They have a top-10 ERA from their starters. They have several established stars putting together All-Star-caliber campaigns.
During their recent three-week turnaround, in which they’ve gone from a sub-.500 club to the best record in the National League, the consistency of the rotation has been one of the Dodgers’ biggest keys, a long-time trademark of the franchise showing up once again.
But in the wake of Dustin May’s forearm injury Wednesday, a flexor pronator strain that will sideline him for at least five to six weeks, the club’s starting pitching depth is now being put under a microscope.
After deciding to rely on young pitchers as rotation alternatives entering the season, the Dodgers’ ability to handle adversity on the mound is about to endure its first real test.
“Dustin is a big void,” manager Dave Roberts said. “But I think the thing we’ve done a really nice job of over the years is that, when something like this unforeseen happens, we continue to move forward. Guys step up.”
Gavin Stone probably will be the first pitcher called upon to bridge the gap, with Roberts saying Thursday the rookie prospect makes “the most sense” to fill in for May in the near term.
Beyond that, however, the Dodgers are suddenly short on other proven replacements.
Bobby Miller, the team’s highest-ranked pitching prospect, isn’t yet ready for his first call-up, Roberts said. The right-hander had the start of his season delayed by shoulder trouble, and has a 5.65 ERA in four triple-A starts this year (though he looked better in a six-inning, one-run start with Oklahoma City on Wednesday).
Ryan Pepiot, another right-handed prospect who was originally slated to be in the Dodgers’ opening day rotation, is still nowhere close to returning from an oblique strain. Pepiot is continuing to experience soreness in his side and has dialed back his recovery work in Arizona to flat-ground catch play, pushing back his potential return until at least after the All-Star break.
Michael Grove, the young right-hander who struggled in four big league starts in early April, has recovered from a groin strain and rejoined the team Thursday in St. Louis on the taxi squad, but only in case the bullpen needs extra coverage after a heavy workload this past week.
Add it all up, and the Dodgers are short on surplus healthy, proven, built-up arms ready to start a big league game.
Their margin for error has dissipated.
A potential pitfall has opened.
The good news for the Dodgers: They still have plenty of star power at the top of their rotation.
Clayton Kershaw (6-3, 2.52 ERA) was the National League’s pitcher of the month in April. Julio Urías (5-4, 4.39 ERA) had a misstep in a 16-8 loss to St. Louis on Thursday in which he gave up four home runs. But before that, he had given up just five runs in his previous three outings. And Tony Gonsolin (1-1, 1.42 ERA) has regained his All-Star form from last year after sitting out several weeks because of a sprained ankle.
When combined with May’s strong performance — the right-hander was 4-1 with a 2.68 ERA before exiting Wednesday’s start after one inning — Dodgers starters rank eighth in the majors in ERA (3.77), 13th in innings pitched (229 1/3) and third in walks and hits per inning (1.14).
But to effectively compensate for the flame-throwing right-hander, the team will need several things to go right.
Noah Syndergaard, who has been shaky as the No. 5 arm in the rotation while battling mental hurdles and a finger blister, will be needed to cover more innings and provide greater stability after posting a 5.94 ERA in his first eight starts (only half of which extended beyond the fourth inning).
Stone, who has impressed in the minor leagues but struggled in a four-inning, five-run debut on May 3, also will have to settle in quickly if he does indeed replace May starting Monday.
“I do think that the second go, if it is potentially Gavin [who replaces May], will be better,” Roberts said. “I’m very excited about the arms we’ve got potentially coming. Maybe didn’t expect to see them so soon. But we’ll see.”
Most of all, the team can ill-afford to suffer another major starting pitching injury — something that’s hardly a given with Kershaw and Gonsolin, who have both endured numerous stints on the injured list in recent seasons.
To that end, Roberts acknowledged he would be “threading a needle” with his starters’ workloads in the coming weeks.
“There’s decisions you’ve got to make, at a point, where you have to decide if you want to put your team in the best situation to win that game,” Roberts said, “or maybe lose the battle to win the war.”
So far this season, the Dodgers’ starters have given the team a leg up in that fight. Whether that will continue now, with injuries starting to mount and depth quickly wearing thin, remains to be seen.