LOS ANGELES -- In a season when Jason Heyward, David Freese and Mike Leake all got a three-week head start on him, it seems a bit presumptuous to mention John Ely as a National League Rookie of the Year candidate.
After all, the Dodgers right-hander has made a total of four starts in the major leagues, the smallest of sample sizes, and you have to assume the more he pitches, the more the other teams' advance scouting reports will catch up to him.
That doesn't necessarily mean the other teams' hitters will catch up to him. They haven't really come close so far.
Ely, a guy whose arrival in the majors was once thought to be so far down the road that the Dodgers didn't even bother inviting him to big league spring training this year, is now a mainstay in their rotation. He turned in his third stellar start in a row Monday night, pitching the Dodgers to their eighth consecutive victory, 6-2 over the Houston Astros before 35,282 at Dodger Stadium.
Ely went a career-high seven innings and struck out a career-high eight batters. He shaved his ERA to 3.50. But the number that really tells the story of why he has been so successful so quickly is this: He has faced 84 consecutive batters without a walk, the longest such current streak in the majors.
And that becomes even more impressive when you consider that between this start and his previous one, Ely celebrated his 24th birthday -- an age when a pitcher usually is still a year or two, or maybe more, from figuring out the concept of trusting his stuff, trusting the seven men standing behind him and trusting the fact he doesn't have to strike out every batter or throw every pitch on the black to make it in the majors.
It was a lesson Ely had to learn early in his professional career because he doesn't have anything close to overpowering stuff.
"I'm just out here doing what I have always done," Ely said. "I just have complete confidence in what I bring to the table and the fact that if I execute my pitches the way I want to, I feel like I have the advantage. That is the way you have to feel every time out. If you doubt yourself, you're going to give up hits."
"We knew what we were getting in Ely, but we never expected to see him here this quickly," Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said. "He knows how to pitch. This is the way he has pitched his whole life. From my first conversation with him the night we acquired him [on Dec. 17], you could tell there was a specialness about him."
Whether Ely can pitch his way onto the list of Rookie of the Year contenders will depend largely on his ability to make adjustments when opposing teams start to adjust to him. The Astros tried, going after him early in counts, but that only played into his hands -- Ely needed just 96 pitches to get through his seven innings.
But this much seems clear already: Following an offseason when the Dodgers were widely panned for their failure to land a quality starting pitcher, it appears all that criticism was a bit misguided. As it turns out, they did get a quality starter after all.
Lost in the shuffle
Both of them came on fly balls the left-handed-hitting DeWitt pulled to within 40 feet of the right-field line, and both of them came with Astros right fielder Hunter Pence playing about 70 feet off the line toward right-center.
"They had a little shift on out there," the ever-charitable DeWitt said. "I was fortunate enough to drop that first one in."
That came in the third inning off Wandy Rodriguez. Pence sprinted and almost ran it down, but dropped it just as he got to it, and the long run was reason enough for the official scorer to rule it a triple. It led to DeWitt's subsequently scoring on Jamey Carroll's sacrifice fly, giving the Dodgers a 4-1 lead.
By the bottom of the eighth, with two on and two out and Brandon Lyon pitching, the Astros apparently still hadn't learned. With Pence still shading him way over in right-center, DeWitt hit another looper almost to the same spot, this one with less arc. This time, Pence dived for it but simply missed it. Manny Ramirez and James Loney, who had been intentionally walked, scored on the play, putting the Dodgers ahead 6-2 and the game out of reach.
By the way, DeWitt also made an outstanding defensive play at second base, taking a hit away from Humberto Quintero with a diving play to his left just after Pedro Feliz's RBI single had cut the Dodgers' lead to 4-2. The play came with Rodriguez on deck, allowing Ely to come back with a quick strikeout to end the inning and strand Feliz on second.
Scene and heard
It is a rare sight when the Dodger Stadium infield is covered, but after the game, the grounds crew did exactly that, rolling out the tarp in apparent anticipation of rainfall overnight and possibly during the day Tuesday. It is an ever rarer sight to see a game rained out at Dodger Stadium, and if it should happen Tuesday night, it will create a sticky situation. The Astros aren't due to return to Los Angeles this season, so finding a spot for a makeup game would be a challenge.
Quote of the day
"I think he just gets tired and starts dropping the bat a little bit. Hopefully, the day off we gave him [Sunday] will be beneficial for him. I still trust him a great deal because he grinds away at it." -- Dodgers manager Joe Torre, speaking before the game about third baseman Casey Blake, who began the day hitting .150 (6-for-40) this month.
Blake, whose only action Sunday consisted of playing defense in the ninth inning, when no balls were hit his way, responded in a big way Monday night. With two outs and two on in the bottom of the first, Blake reached for an outside pitch from Rodriguez and poked it just inside first base and up the line. Blake took third on Pence's vain attempt to cut down Matt Kemp at the plate.
Alas, it was Blake's only hit in four at-bats. He grounded out twice and struck out.
Right-hander Hiroki Kuroda (4-1, 2.66) has given up only four runs in 18 2/3 career innings against the Astros spanning three starts. He will be opposed by Houston right-hander Bud Norris (2-4, 6.03), who has struck out 41 batters in 34 1/3 innings this season but also has averaged 5.2 walks per nine innings. He has never faced the Dodgers. This will be the Astros' final game at Dodger Stadium this year, marking the first time in their 45-year history they will play no more than two games in a season at Chavez Ravine.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.