LOS ANGELES -- There was a moment Tuesday night when John Ely made the kind of mistake you might expect a rookie pitcher to make in only his seventh major league start. It came on a ground ball to third base in the top of the third inning, when Ely, after watching teammate Casey Blake scoop it and throw to first, started jogging toward the dugout.
Luckily for Ely, he didn't get very far before he realized there were only two outs. Even more luckily for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Ely stuck around for a lot longer than the time it took him to polish off the next hitter so he really could take a breather.
Alas, he didn't stick around long enough for the Dodgers to get him a win -- by the time Matt Kemp ended it with a solo homer off Arizona Diamondbacks reliever Juan Gutierrez, giving the Dodgers a 1-0, 10-inning victory before 36,533 at Dodger Stadium, Ely was long gone. But before he was lifted for a pinch hitter, Ely turned in seven shutout innings, limiting the sleepwalking Diamondbacks to two hits on an evening when he had absolutely no margin for error because Arizona ace Dan Haren blanked the Dodgers through eight.
Although Ely walked two batters for the second start in a row after walking only one over his previous four starts spanning 25 2/3 innings, the fact that can even be cited as a negative is yet another indication of how good Ely's control really is.
By now, you probably have read about Ely and what makes him so special: He compensates for having less-than-overpowering stuff not only with endless strike-throwing, but with what appears to be pinpoint command within the strike zone. In his past six starts, discounting a big league debut that wasn't exactly memorable on a cold afternoon in New York on April 28, Ely has given up no more than two earned runs in any of them, posting a 1.80 ERA.
He faced 25 Diamondbacks hitters in this game, throwing a first-pitch strike to 19 of them.
"That is what I am trying to accomplish every single time I'm out there," Ely said. "I'm trying to get ahead of every guy. I thought I did a pretty good job of it tonight, and the results speak for themselves."
Dodgers officials can hardly be blamed if they have been waiting for the inevitable rookie pitfalls. But given that they haven't happened yet and don't appear to be coming any time soon, the question has to be asked: Why is this kid so good so quickly? It is a question that becomes especially pertinent in an organization in which highly touted pitching prospects usually seem to take years after their initial arrival in the majors to figure it out and start pitching to their potential.
Ely says a big key is his mechanics. While he throws four different pitches -- a fastball, changeup, curveball and occasional cutter -- he tries to throw them all with the exact same delivery every time.
"Every pitcher is going to have an off day with a certain pitch or maybe even more than one pitch," Ely said. "But for me, even on those days, if I'm able to throw everything the same as my fastball, I'm going to have a good day."
Ely also works quickly, and it isn't just the deadline-conscious sports writers in the press box who appreciate him for it. The seven men standing behind him kind of like it, too, as it keeps them on their toes and in a rhythm over the course of the game, each one always ready for the next pitch to be hit to him. And that is a good thing for the Dodgers, because Ely doesn't strike out or walk many batters -- he has only 12 strikeouts in 20 1/3 innings over his past three starts -- so the ball is usually going to be hit to one of those guys.
"He is like bubbles out there, very effervescent on the mound," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "He gets it and throws it, gets it and throws it. The perfect example of what he can do was when he faced [Diamondbacks catcher Chris] Snyder [in the third inning]. He was ahead two strikes, then threw three balls, then threw a breaking ball for strike three.
"He will throw any pitch any time. I can tell you as a former player myself, that is really tough to try to hit against because he has all those weapons."
His success notwithstanding, opposing clubs clearly have Ely well-scouted. Those clubs have been noticeably aggressive against him. But in a way, that has the effect of playing directly into his hands because he actually wants hitters to put the ball in play early, as that helps him maintain an economical pitch count. And even when those clubs do swing early and often, with Ely's ability to mix his pitches and change speeds, it isn't as if they're going to get a lot of fastballs down the middle early in the count.
Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said Ely's best weapon is his changeup -- or, more specifically, the speed differential between his fastball and changeup, which often comes in at around 80 mph.
"The only one I can probably compare it to is [that of Greg] Maddux," Honeycutt said. "You could tell the hitter when it's coming, and they probably still couldn't wait on it long enough. It just looks like it's never going to get there."
While it wouldn't be entirely accurate to say no one saw Ely coming, Dodgers officials have said they saw him coming way down the road as opposed to, say, now. They knew what they were getting when they asked for Ely, along with minor league reliever Jon Link, from the White Sox in the Juan Pierre trade. But the Dodgers certainly didn't think Ely would fit into their plans this soon, maybe not even this year, as evidenced by the fact they didn't even invite him to major league spring training.
But mostly out of necessity -- the Dodgers needed an extra pitcher when Vicente Padilla went on the disabled list and a rainout forced them to play a doubleheader, all in the span of five days -- Ely was brought up to pitch April 28. Although he gave up five runs and hurt himself with a bad defensive play, Torre, Honeycutt and general manager Ned Colletti all saw enough that they liked that they decided to keep Ely.
Since then, he has been everything he was expected to be a year or two from now. And the thing is, whether by coincidence, osmosis or imitation, the rest of the Dodgers' rotation seems to have taken a collective step forward along with him, Chad Billingsley and Clayton Kershaw routinely attacking the strike zone in a way they never had in the past.
In a season when a crop of stellar rookies have taken the National League by storm, it is probably way too early and way too presumptuous to call Ely a Rookie of the Year candidate. But if he keeps pitching this way, he and the Dodgers might accomplish something far more meaningful than any individual awards.
With the game threatening to drag all the way to Wednesday's noon-hour start, Kemp made sure that didn't happen, slamming a 2-2 pitch from Gutierrez on a low-arcing line drive just over the wall and just to the right of the Dodgers bullpen in left field, pulling the second-place Dodgers (30-22) to within a game of division-leading San Diego in the NL West and sticking the cellar-dwelling Diamondbacks with their ninth consecutive defeat.
Kemp apparently didn't know he wasn't supposed to do that. Walk-off homers for the Dodgers are usually reserved for Andre Ethier, who was in the on-deck circle at the time after going 1-for-8 in his first two games off the disabled list.
The homer also gave Kemp 11 for the season, tying him with Ethier for the team lead. And it made a winner of Jeff Weaver (3-1), who pitched around a one-out single by Rusty Ryal in the top of the 10th after Ronald Belisario and Hong-Chih Kuo had shut down the Diamondbacks in the eighth and ninth.
Lost in the shuffle
With Russell Martin on first, Jamey Carroll at the plate and Ely, who had thrown 91 pitches and was still dominating, on deck in the seventh inning, Carroll, for some strange reason, laid down a bunt, and it wasn't a good one. Haren picked it up quickly and fired to second to force Martin, who as he slid in raised his left foot into the groin of shortstop Stephen Drew, then wound up with much of his body on top of Drew's foot as Drew tried to get out of the way.
As Martin got up, Drew said something to him about the slide. Martin said something back, center fielder Chris Young stepped in front of Martin, and pretty soon, both benches emptied. No punches were thrown, no ejections were forthcoming, and order was quickly restored.
"It was just a hard slide," Martin said. "Looking at the replay, I kind of slid through the bag a little bit, and I caught his foot. He didn't like that, and he expressed his disapproval. I just told him I play the game hard, nothing personal there. And that was when the benches cleared."
Rookie Carlos Monasterios (2-0, 2.20) will make his third major league start for the Dodgers. He has given up only three earned runs and eight hits over nine innings in his first two starts, but he didn't pitch more than five innings or throw more than 73 pitches in either of them. He will be opposed by former Dodgers pitching prospect Edwin Jackson (3-6, 6.03), who was torched by his old team for six earned runs and seven hits over 6 2/3 innings on May 12 at Chase Field. This will be his first career start against the Dodgers at Dodger Stadium, where he was 4-3 with a 5.79 ERA in seven starts and three relief appearances pitching for the home team from 2003 to 2005.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.