Commentary

De La Rosa shows flashes of brilliance

Dodgers pitcher looked great through five innings and will improve with time

Updated: July 5, 2011, 3:30 AM ET
By Tony Jackson | ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- For five innings Monday night, we got a good look at the reason the Los Angeles Dodgers were willing to gamble on Rubby De La Rosa when they called up their top pitching prospect all the way from Double-A six weeks ago and again when they put him in their starting rotation in early June.

In the sixth, though, we got a sobering look at the inherent pitfalls of relying on a player with so little experience who really wasn't even on the radar of top organizational prospects until last year's minor league breakout performance.

[+] EnlargeRubby De La Rosa
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesRubby De La Rosa let some bad luck in the sixth inning affect him, but with time he'll be more resilient.

That was all the Dodgers needed to propel them to another defeat, this time 5-2 at the hands of the New York Mets before a sellout crowd of 56,000 at Dodger Stadium. It was an inning manager Don Mattingly said left the rest of the team "deflated."

De La Rosa flirted with a perfect game, losing it when he issued a two-out walk to Carlos Beltran in the fourth, then flirted a little while longer with a no-hitter, losing that when Ruben Tejada flared a single to left to lead off the sixth.

The shutout was the next thing to go, quickly followed by the game, with the Mets scoring three runs on four hits that inning -- including a freakish double by Angel Pagan that skipped past a diving James Loney at first, and back-to-back, two-out doubles by Beltran and Daniel Murphy to give the Mets a 3-2 lead.

From there, the Dodgers, deflated or not, were toast.

De La Rosa actually went back for the seventh and pitched decently, saving Mattingly from using a reliever before the pitcher's spot came up in the bottom of that inning. But something definitely changed after Tejada's hit ruined De La Rosa's bid for immortality. A lot of somethings, in fact.

De La Rosa, who said he was well aware that he was working on a no-hitter, said his focus wasn't one of those somethings.

"I didn't lose my concentration," De La Rosa said, with Kenji Nimura interpreting. "I didn't lose my focus. I was pitching the same as before."

At a time when it looks like Jon Garland, the pitcher De La Rosa replaced in the Dodgers' rotation, is done for the year, and when there really isn't anybody else in the organization who presents a better option, De La Rosa is probably a fixture for the rest of the season.

And it's not like De La Rosa is some stiff. He entered the season as the organization's top pitching prospect, and in his past two starts, he has given up four runs on 11 hits over 14 innings in two games in which the Dodgers have scored a grand total of three runs. A little support here or there, and De La Rosa might well have won both of those games.

But again, when you have a pitcher with limited experience, it doesn't really matter how easily he is mowing down opposing hitters. There is always that chance that his performance could turn on a dime, on a single bad pitch -- maybe even on a ruined no-hit bid.

"I don't know if he [lost his focus] or not," Mattingly said. "He had been pretty good. Then all of a sudden, he was in the stretch. Then the ball Pagan hit just got by James, and Carlos hit one up the line."

OK, so De La Rosa was unlucky. That's true of pretty much every Dodgers starting pitcher these days. Shoot, these days, just being a Dodgers starting pitcher is unlucky in and of itself.

But while Pagan's and Beltran's doubles both were well-placed, it also is true that De La Rosa threw 51 pitches through his first five innings, then threw a staggering 47 over his final two. That suggests one of two things: Either the Mets changed their approach against him, which wouldn't have made sense at that point because De La Rosa had been pounding the strike zone all night; or De La Rosa stopped pounding the strike zone.

"In the sixth inning, I was behind in the count a lot," De La Rosa said.

Again, that is one of the risks that come with a rookie pitcher, and let's face it: The Dodgers (37-49), who are 12 games below .500 for the first time in six years and continue to bring up the rear in the National League West, 11 games behind the division-leading San Francisco Giants, aren't really all that risk-averse right now.

That is why De La Rosa should be a part of this rotation for the rest of the season. No matter how much he gets beaten up. No matter how many times he lets a bad inning sour an otherwise-strong performance. No matter how many times he stops pounding the zone and starts falling behind in counts.

As we saw Wednesday in Minnesota, when De La Rosa gave up a leadoff triple, a run-scoring groundout and nothing else to speak of over seven dazzling innings, and as we saw again against the Mets, when he served notice for five innings of just how dominating he has the ability to be, De La Rosa has the potential to be a top-tier pitcher in this league for years to come.

He isn't there now. But the experience he is getting will only make him better, sooner. And if there is even one advantage for a team whose season is circling the drain, it is that it can afford to let a pitcher like De La Rosa get that experience now, rather than in some future year when those obligatory rookie pitfalls might actually cost it something.

Tony Jackson

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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