SAN FRANCISCO -- They were the final two pitches Rubby De La Rosa would throw Tuesday night, and for a more established starter, it would have been way too early in the game for that to be acceptable. The promising right-hander had just blown a one-run lead, which is about the only kind of lead the Los Angeles Dodgers can rustle up these days, but he had gotten all three outs in that fifth inning with those two pitches and stranded a runner at third. His catcher, Rod Barajas, felt all of that was worth celebrating.
So on his way off the field, Barajas, who had run halfway up the line to back up on that inning-ending double-play grounder by San Francisco Giants outfielder Cody Ross, turned toward De La Rosa and excitedly pointed at him. He yelled a couple of things about what a great job he had done. He celebrated De La Rosa's having made such a big pitch at such a critical juncture to keep the score tied, even though the Dodgers eventually would suffer their fourth loss in a row, 5-3 to the Giants before a sellout crowd of 42,391 at AT&T Park.
"Especially when you play the Giants, these games are pretty intense," Barajas said. "We had a chance to turn a double play the batter before, but [De La Rosa] kind of threw a changeup to second base and we didn't have time. He needed to make a pitch to get out of that inning, and he was able to do it."
Nowadays, this is what you do with rookie pitchers, especially promising ones with high ceilings who aren't close to reaching their full potential yet. You nurse them along. You stroke their self-esteem. You downplay their shortcomings. You pump them up. You treat even their smallest triumphs like something monumental.
You give them love, and I don't mean the tough kind.
And so De La Rosa was given a pat on the back and allowed to feel good about his eighth major league start, a five-inning effort in which he gave up nine hits and threw a staggering 88 pitches, but, as the old mantra goes, kept the Dodgers in the game and gave them a chance to win. But did he, really? If you're a starting pitcher for the Dodgers and your team's sad excuse for an offense manages to scratch out a three-run inning to give you a 3-2 lead and you let that lead get away, is it realistic to hope that the Dodgers can come up with even one more run?
Not on this night, it wasn't. Not on most nights, it isn't.
But right now, the Dodgers are all about the future, a presumably brighter one, probably with a new owner who can afford to pursue big-time free agents and keep the Dodgers as perennially competitive as a big-market behemoth is supposed to be. And right now, De La Rosa is one of the symbols of that future.
And so, if De La Rosa goes out and delivers a performance that is decent but not good enough for a win at a point when the Dodgers' season is a lost cause anyway, nobody is going to get upset about it except maybe the Arizona Diamondbacks, the only team left in the National League West that still has any realistic hope of catching the Giants, and they were too busy getting blown out at home by the Milwaukee Brewers to really notice.
"There were times tonight when he could have just folded and not even gotten five innings," Barajas said. "This is the kind of game that he can grow from as a pitcher and realize that when guys get on base, you don't have to do more, more, more. If you stay within yourself and keep doing what you were doing with nobody on base, maybe you can have success."
Before one game earlier this week, somebody asked Dodgers manager Don Mattingly about De La Rosa, and Mattingly likened him to the rookie version of Clayton Kershaw three years ago. You might remember that raw but supremely talented young lefty, who was younger then (20) than De La Rosa is now (22), who usually threw a lot of pitches and didn't go deep into games.
Fast forward to today, and Kershaw is a bona fide ace who leads the majors in strikeouts and is coming off his first All-Star Game, in which he turned in a perfect inning. Mattingly's obvious implication was that De La Rosa has a chance one day to be just as good, but that on his way there, he is certain to present us all with several occasions, countless occasions perhaps, when we will have to remind ourselves to be patient with him and remember that becoming a front-line major league pitcher is a process.
Occasions such as this one, when his performance wasn't good enough to prevent the Dodgers (42-55) from falling into a last-place tie with the San Diego Padres in the NL West, a season-worst 14 1/2 games behind the division-leading Giants.
"I have to attack the zone more, and I have to make better pitches," De La Rosa conceded through interpreter Kenji Nimura.
To his credit, De La Rosa didn't walk a single batter. But by the end of the first inning, he already had thrown 28 pitches -- 15 of them to the final two batters, Nate Schierholtz and Ross, both of whom he struck out with runners on the corners to escape a jam.
And that, as much as anything, is what Mattingly was talking about. De La Rosa has a solid makeup. He doesn't pitch scared, and he doesn't back down from difficult situations. But it might take him a lot of time, and a lot of pitches, to get out of those situations, even if he eventually does get out of them.
He appears to possess a level of poise that far exceeds his age, and we already have seen him deliver a couple of stellar outings, including the six shutout innings he had pitched in his previous start against the Padres 10 days earlier and the seven-inning, one-run effort June 29 at Minnesota. Meanwhile, his ERA is perfectly acceptable, both overall (3.73) and as a starter (3.94), especially for an inexperienced rookie who never even stopped at Triple-A on his way to the majors.
"He was OK," Mattingly said of De La Rosa's performance against the Giants, his first since he kept their regular lineup hitless for four innings during a Cactus League game in Scottsdale, Ariz., on March 18. "I think it's kind of what we're going to see. He is going to have stuff, and he is going to have [rough] innings. It's just part of his growing up. He hung in there. It's what we were talking about, a lot of pitches for five innings. But as he grows, it's going to get better and better."
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.