Troncoso's time could come soon
MESA, Ariz. -- Ramon Troncoso's odds of making the Los Angeles Dodgers' season-opening roster seem to have gotten shorter every time he has pitched this spring -- not only in the Cactus League but also on the side mounds, where manager Don Mattingly has gotten to watch him much more closely, including at times from the left-handed batter's box.
"His 'pens have been really good, too," said Mattingly, who has been using the unorthodox managerial technique of actually standing in, bat in hand, against his pitchers, though without actually swinging. "For me, seeing a guy be able to take it from the sides to the games, that is nice to see. I watched him the other day, and the thing you watch is the catcher's glove, which was hardly moving.
"He has been impressive, and he has been sharp."
Troncoso was impressive and sharp again in Sunday's game, a 5-3, 10-inning loss to the Chicago Cubs before 8,669 at HoHoKam Park. The right-hander relieved starter Chad Billingsley with two outs and two on in the fourth, immediately got Cubs shortstop Darwin Barney to ground into an inning-ending forceout, then pitched a perfect fifth without allowing a ball to be hit out of the infield.
Troncoso's once-promising career went slightly off track last year, when he posted a major league ERA of 4.33 and spent most of July and August in the minors. Mattingly and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said Troncoso suddenly became reluctant to use the sinkerball that had worked so well for him as a rookie in 2008 and again in 2009.
So far this spring, though, Troncoso has been just short of perfect, retiring 10 of the 11 batters he has faced in three appearances and striking out three of them. The lone exception was Kansas City's Eric Hosmer, who got him for a one-out double on Wednesday, but Troncoso came right back to get Jeff Francoeur on a grounder to short and strike out Mike Moustakas.
But it was what he did against the Cubs -- finishing one inning, sitting down while the Dodgers batted, then coming back to pitch another -- that exemplified why Troncoso could be so valuable to the Dodgers if he could nail down a bullpen spot.
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Almost two years have now passed since that watershed game in Colorado on April 25, 2009, when Troncoso proved his big league mettle and saved the Dodgers' bacon with four shutout innings after a brief start by James McDonald. In doing so, Troncoso preserved a one-run victory over the Rockies that would loom large five months later with the two teams in a head-to-head race that wasn't decided until Game No. 161. In a perfect world, the Dodgers won't need Troncoso to do that again. But if he makes the club, they may need him to go more than one inning at a time on a fairly frequent basis.
"His role would be to kind of fit in the middle [ahead of] whoever you have setting up," Mattingly said. "He is a guy who is going to have to pitch multiple innings."
Troncoso, 28, is one of several candidates for what could be three open bullpen spots, at least until Vicente Padilla comes back in late April or early May. Although Mattingly says he wants to take the best arms, the reality is that at least one of those spots is probably reserved for a left-hander, and there still is a chance lefties Ron Mahay and Scott Elbert will both make the club. Given that, Troncoso could be battling Kenley Jansen, Travis Schlichting, Mike MacDougal and possibly John Ely for the two spots.
Billingsley, who allowed two runs (one earned) on three hits over 3 2/3 innings in his second start of the spring, said he doesn't feel quite as good as he would like to at this point in camp.
"I still have to get a feel for everything, get a good rhythm and make quality pitches when I need to," he said. "I was leaving the ball up in the zone a little bit today. ... My curveball was kind of spinning out a little bit early, but as the game went on and I got a little tired, I started getting a better feel for it."
Mattingly indicated that Billingsley was struggling with his command.
"He was OK," Mattingly said. "He was all over the place a little bit, but he was throwing the ball good."
In two Cactus League starts, Billingsley has allowed just one earned run in 6 2/3 innings, and his two-out walk to Geovany Soto in the fourth inning was his only one of the spring. He is lined up to start the second game of the season on April 1 against the San Francisco Giants.
Although the tightness in first baseman James Loney's knee isn't serious and Loney tentatively is expected back in the lineup by Wednesday, the momentary scare did underscore the fact the Dodgers don't have a lot of depth at Loney's position.
Third baseman Casey Blake and outfielders Jay Gibbons and Marcus Thames all have some experience -- but not a lot of it -- at first base, and Mattingly said any or all of them could be a viable alternative if Loney were to be lost for, say, two or three games. But if Loney suffered a major injury that sidelined him for a month or more?
In that case, Mattingly said, the Dodgers would have to bring up a first baseman from the minors. And the most likely candidate would be Russell Mitchell, a third baseman by trade who also can play left and right field but played all of 13 games at first for Triple-A Albuquerque last year.
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"We feel like Russ can be pretty flexible," Mattingly said. "He can handle himself out there, and he has actually played some second. He even did some catching in the Instructional League, so we feel like we could trust him with catching. That emergency third catcher can be pretty valuable in the National League because it allows you to maybe pinch run for your catcher without having to get nervous about not having another catcher left on the bench."
In order to provide that flexibility, though, Mitchell has to actually be on the roster, and Mattingly conceded that there probably isn't a spot for him if everyone stays healthy.
"In general, it doesn't really fit our needs right now," Mattingly said.
• The Dodgers have scheduled a "B" game against the Seattle Mariners for Tuesday morning at Camelback Ranch. Although the lineups primarily will consist of minor leaguers, Dodgers right-hander Hiroki Kuroda will take his next turn in the rotation in that game because the loose rules of B games will allow pitching coach Rick Honeycutt to have more control over Kuroda's pitch count. John Ely, who will be a starter at Albuquerque if he doesn't make the team as a reliever and thus is on a starter's program this spring, will pitch that day's Cactus League game against the Milwaukee Brewers.
• The Cubs won the game on a two-run, walk-off, pinch-hit homer by D.J. LeMahieu, one of those guys who are routinely borrowed from minor league camp for Cactus League games, who play only in the late stages of those games if they play at all and who wear high numbers (he wore No. 89) with no names on the backs of their jerseys. The no-doubt blast over the left-field wall came against Dodgers prospect Luis Vasquez, who had walked Luis Montanez to begin the inning and failed to record an out.
• The Dodgers (3-7) visit the Cactus League's newest facility for the first time on Monday when they play the Colorado Rockies at Talking Stick, which was built on the Salt River/Pima Indian Reservation in Scottsdale and funded entirely by casino profits. Ted Lilly, who pitched in a B game last week, will make his first official start.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter. Follow him on Twitter.