Dodgers’ Ryan Pepiot flirts with perfection and continues to open eyes for October

MIAMI — Ryan Pepiot wasn’t supposed to be here. Or, at least, the Dodgers had decided he wouldn’t be.

He was originally scheduled to be in Sugar Land, Texas, pitching Tuesday in a ballpark that holds just 7,500. But hours before the outing, circumstances changed, just as they have all year.

Just like when he made the Opening Day roster only to land on the injured list before throwing a single pitch.

Just like when the Dodgers’ crop of talented young pitchers debuted and took their cracks at making an impact while all he could do was watch.

Given a chance Thursday, he was almost perfect before a crowd of 12,047 at loanDepot Park.

Donning fake stirrups and a wry, nervous smile, the third big leaguer ever from a noted basketball institution nearly inserted his name into baseball history. Pepiot dropped his hands to his knees as he watched Josh Bell’s single trickle into the outfield, seven outs away from the 25th perfect game in big-league history.

He settled for his best performance to date, delivering seven brilliant innings in a 10-0 win for a Dodgers club that desperately needed it.

“It’s pretty special,” Pepiot said.

He had made no bones about it. He wanted this. The 26-year-old, pitching for just the 13th time as a big leaguer, looked like a man well aware of what he was doing with little ability to contain himself. The Dodgers were content to let him keep going — his pitch count entering the seventh sat at just 65, and his stuff was holding.

“Man, we were all pulling for him,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “I was gonna give him every opportunity to finish that game if it was a no-hitter, let alone a perfect game.”

Pepiot struck out two of the first three batters he faced, then subjected himself to the fate of the bounce the next six innings. Just two of the first 13 batters he faced got the ball out of the infield as Pepiot flashed the tantalizing ability that made him one of the most sought-after pitching prospects in the sport. Anything hit found gloves.

Amed Rosario had never played second base in his life before arriving in Los Angeles 43 days ago. Not in a pickup game. Not in taking grounders during his early work. He had been a shortstop through and through growing up in Santo Domingo Centro in the Dominican Republic. Rosario had been a prized prospect in the minor leagues before breaking through for the Mets, and then in Cleveland.

Still, he figured, he’d played up the middle before. If you could play shortstop, you could play anywhere (that, of course, is a concept the Dodgers have had mixed results with). But there was Rosario in the fifth, sliding to snare a Jesús Sánchez groundball and make the throw to Freddie Freeman at first to secure another inning of perfection.

When the Marlins’ Luis Arraez, the man who at one point this summer challenged to hit .400 and is on his way to a batting title, scorched a liner to lead off the seventh, Rosario pulled off more wizardry. He leaped for a snowcone grab that somehow held in the webbing of his glove as the 6-foot-2 Rosario extended himself to the farthest reaches of his wingspan. His growth defensively, Roberts said, has been “remarkable.”

He was ready.

“I don’t want someone to hit a grounder or line drive to me and I don’t make the play because I put so much pressure on myself,” Rosario said in Spanish. “(So) I just tried to let the game dictate what I need to do.”

Two batters later, Bell’s sharp grounder scooted by, well out of reach.

By then, Pepiot had already noticed something. Normally one of the chattier pitchers on the bench, even during his starts, he felt the conversations getting shorter and eventually nonexistent. The silence weirded him out, particularly as he noticed the zeros on the scoreboard.

“I can’t sit there and be dead silent,” he said. “I’ll go nuts.”

History was close. The moment didn’t get too big, anyway. He went on the attack, going to the well for his fourth changeup of the at-bat to try to strike out Bell before the slugger went below the zone and poked it through.

The Dodgers have noted since the spring that Pepiot has become a different pitcher than the jittery ball of clay with shaky command he was upon his debut last May. He has learned how to be aggressive in the strike zone more regularly. He’s improved his slider enough for it to be a suitable third pitch. Catcher Austin Barnes noted that Pepiot’s ability to attack both sides of the plate has opened up possibilities so he “doesn’t necessarily have to give in” to opposing hitters. More than anything, he’s seemed comfortable enough, even in a season that has challenged him.

“He just keeps getting better every time he takes the baseball,” Roberts said.

Pepiot earned his way onto this club out of camp, but pitching through what he thought was an oblique issue only made his intercostal injury worse, costing him four and a half months of a season that should have been a breakthrough. Fellow rookies Michael Grove, Gavin Stone, Bobby Miller and Emmet Sheehan have all taken the chances that would’ve been afforded to him this summer as the rotation fell into disarray, all while Pepiot sat and watched from his Arizona home.

Now, that window is cracked. He started Thursday in the place of Julio Urías, who was placed on paid administrative leave on Wednesday stemming from his arrest late Sunday night on suspicion of felony corporal abuse of a spouse, leaving an uncertain future for a rotation that already had its series of question marks. Clayton Kershaw’s lingering shoulder trouble has led to a drop in velocity and effectiveness. Lance Lynn hasn’t been able to mitigate home runs. And the organization will suddenly have to rely heavily on rookies such as Miller, Sheehan, Stone and Pepiot to take on pivotal roles in October.

“It would be incredible,” Pepiot said. “Everyone wants to play in October. October baseball is something special. Just going out there every night and just trying to advance, win one game at a time, and go as far as you can would mean a lot to me.”

The Dodgers are going to have to scramble to put together a formidable run-prevention unit on the mound in October. It’s a series of bets that, all together, aren’t ideal. But it also leaves an opportunity for the club to see a surprise or two.

Thursday night, Pepiot gave them one.

“When things happen that are unforeseen, it creates opportunities for others,” Roberts said. “To (Ryan’s) credit, he’s going out there and opening a lot of eyes.”

(Photo of Ryan Pepiot: Jim Rassol/USA Today)

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