The most important pitches thrown off the Dodger Stadium mound Saturday happened when the stands were empty, the gates closed.
Hours before the Dodgers’ 6-3 loss against the New York Yankees, injured left-hander Julio Urías completed his biggest step yet in his recovery from a hamstring strain. During a roughly 30-pitch bullpen session, the club’s opening day starter showed few limitations, using his entire pitch mix while building up to about 80% intensity.
“He was good today,” manager Dave Roberts said.
If all goes to plan, Urías could return to action as soon as next weekend in Philadelphia. That would not only represent his first start in almost a month but also leave the banged-up Dodgers with a different kind of rotation question than they’ve faced for much of this season.
Since the start of the season, the team has been a starting pitcher or two short.
And another rookie right-hander, Michael Grove, finally returned from a groin strain Saturday, giving up four runs in five innings in the Dodgers’ loss to the Yankees — who prevailed behind six dominant innings from Gerrit Cole, four home runs from their offense and a spectacular eighth-inning catch from Aaron Judge, in which the reigning American League most valuable player went through the bullpen gate in right field.
“Obviously he made a couple mistakes,” Roberts said of Grove. “But I thought overall, it was really good.”
But now, with Urías’ return on the horizon, the Dodgers will have a rare surplus on the mound. Between now and next weekend, the club will have to pick a current rotation member to be replaced by their left-handed ace.
And though a final decision hasn’t been made, the evaluation process is well underway.
“That conversation is gonna happen,” Roberts said pregame. “Once we get to that point, we’ll have to make some decisions.”
The most obvious candidates are Grove, Miller and Noah Syndergaard.
Grove showed improved stuff in his return Saturday. His fastball averaged an MLB career-best 96.5 mph, after some work with the Dodgers’ minor league pitching staff during his rehab. His combination of curveballs and sliders, meanwhile, helped him rack up seven strikeouts and 13 whiffs.
“They didn’t take a lot of good swings against him,” said Roberts, who confirmed Grove will start again next week in Philadelphia. “I think he’s got a lot of confidence.”
The only problem: Grove gave up a pair of two-run home runs to Yankees left fielder Jake Bauers, hanging a slider in the second inning before throwing a fastball down the middle in the fourth. In five MLB starts this year, he has an 8.14 earned-run average.
“I made a lot of really good pitches, and made some bad pitches that I got punished for,” Grove said. “Plenty to learn from. Plenty to be happy about, as well.”
Miller has been an even bigger rookie sensation since making his MLB debut last month. In two starts, he has given up just two runs in 11 innings while striking out nine.
He’ll get another big test Sunday, slated to start the series finale against the Yankees on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball.”
But to this point, he has lived up to his top-prospect hype — even after making only eight career triple-A starts.
“It’s a big stage,” Roberts said of Miller’s upcoming start. “I know he can handle it. There’s gonna be some extra adrenaline. You’re seeing [Giancarlo] Stanton and Judge in the batter’s box. It’s gonna bring out the best in Bobby.”
Then there is Syndergaard.
The $13-million offseason signing has suffered a disastrous start to his Dodgers career, posting a 6.54 ERA through his first 11 starts.
On Friday, Roberts confirmed Syndergaard will get start No. 12 next week in Cincinnati. A bad one there, however, and his advantage of experience over the two rookies could be all but void.
“When he makes that start, I’m gonna feel the same way I do every time he takes the mound,” an optimistic Roberts said Friday. “That he’s gonna pitch well, and it’s gonna turn.”
It better. Because after scrambling through the opening couple of months, the Dodgers will finally have the luxury of excess starting pitching soon. And barring another injury before then, someone will have to make way in order for Urías to return.
Trayce Thompson set for IL
Trayce Thompson strained his oblique on a checked swing Saturday and will likely go on the injured list, according to Roberts.
“I feel for him,” Roberts said of Thompson, who drew a walk in his pinch-hit at-bat and had been showing improvement after ending an 0-for-39 slump last week. “I’m sure he’s really disappointed."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.