LOS ANGELES — Before he started his long walk back to the dugout after the third inning, Tony Gonsolin looked up at the scoreboard. He already surveyed plenty of damage on Friday night. More would come an inning later. It has bruised his ERA, which sat at 4.98 after his latest blowup start in what has been a career-worst year. And it could impact much more than that.
A year ago, Gonsolin was a breakout star. A first-time All-Star who had seemingly come into his own, using the same mix of pitches he so deftly navigated traffic with as a young right-hander and cutting out the middleman. He was efficient, so much so that the expectations have shifted.
Instead, he has backslid into the worst run he has shown as a big leaguer. After missing the first month of the season with a sprained ankle, Gonsolin never quite looked like himself. His fastball velocity, which entered the night averaging 92.4 mph, is the lowest of his career. He has been pitching through what he admitted Friday was an unspecified elbow issue over the past month and a half, one that he conceded has likely led to his diminished stuff. The lingering issue has given the Dodgers cause to discuss placing him on the injured list but hasn’t yet come to pass.
The recent results suggest his leash might not be much longer. Gonsolin allowed 10 runs in Friday’s 11-3 loss and has allowed four or more runs in eight of his last 11 starts. Entering this season, he only had four such starts in his entire career.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said no decision was finalized, but the staff will meet with Gonsolin ahead of Saturday’s doubleheader and discuss what will likely be a stint on the IL to give him a break and a chance to heal from whatever has caused the most woeful stretch of his career.
“It’s not working,” Roberts said. “We got to kind of readjust.”
Only four clubs in baseball have produced fewer runs per game than the Marlins, yet it took them little time to bash Gonsolin around. Jorge Soler became the second leadoff man in as many starts to take the 29-year-old deep to begin a start, jumping on the second pitch Gonsolin threw and driving it a couple of rows back of the right field wall. Soler’s next turn ended with a mammoth shot, turning on a fastball above the strike zone and taking it more than halfway up the pavilions in left.
The power didn’t stop there. Jake Burger clobbered a center-cut slider for a three-run shot, and Jacob Stallings took advantage of the two-out infield single before him, driving another fastball well clear of the center-field fence. The Dodgers, bracing for a doubleheader on Saturday, trotted Gonsolin out for the fourth only for him to surrender a three-run shot from Jazz Chisholm Jr. that hooked down by the right-field foul pole. He couldn’t get out of the inning.
“Put our ‘pen in a s—ty situation,” Gonsolin said.
It marked the first time in Gonsolin’s career he had allowed at least three home runs in an outing, much less five.
“I just wasn’t executing very well,” Gonsolin said.
He entered rare air. Gonsolin is now one of just seven pitchers in franchise history, and the first since Hall of Famer Don Sutton on May 7, 1973, to allow five or more home runs in an outing.
Gonsolin was expected to take another step forward this season, to be an integral part of a rotation that struggled for much of the first half and into a miserable July and has had every member of its Opening Day staff hit the IL at some point. That group has stabilized itself somewhat, outside of Gonsolin – entering Friday, the staff’s starters and bulk arms had combined for a 2.00 ERA since the start of August. With it, the club has surged. They won 11 in a row before Friday’s drubbing.
“It’s a performance game,” Roberts said. “Overall, just hasn’t been what we’re used to seeing from Tony.”
With how he’s pitching, Gonsolin has work to do to even remain a regular part of this rotation for the stretch run, much less in October.
The remaining options are intriguing, yet unproven. Ryan Pepiot will be recalled as the extra man for Saturday’s doubleheader, according to league sources. He is making his season debut after being part of the Opening Day roster and then landing on the injured list with an oblique issue. Pepiot is expected to factor into the pitching plans for the early game and, with Monday’s off day, could slot back in if need be. Another length arm is expected to hop on a flight from Oklahoma City, too. Fellow rookies Emmet Sheehan and Gavin Stone have had growing pains in their first taste of the majors, but still have promise. And while Ryan Yarbrough has starting experience, he’s settled in well to a swingman role since being acquired at the deadline.
The Dodgers have put a lot of faith in their former All-Star, even as he’s been physically compromised. The elbow issue, Roberts said, is something that the club’s medical staff feels cannot be made worse by pitching through it. Gonsolin has wanted the baseball each turn. The club has given it to him, with Roberts saying Gonsolin has “earned and deserved” the opportunity to keep working through his struggles.
But the evidence is mounting that it will not be that simple to overcome.
“You’ve got to go out there and perform,” Roberts said. “Even if you’re not 100 percent and you’re willing to take the baseball, wanting to and still not performing, then we as an organization have to make a decision.”
(Top photo of Tony Gonsolin: Jonathan Hui / USA Today)