June 29, 2016
Dave Roberts stood on the bottom step of his dugout and offered his hand to his rookie pitcher. Roberts could not have daydreamed about moments like this when he became the manager of the Dodgers. But in a season scarred by injuries, this is his reality.
So after five innings, Roberts shook hands with Brock Stewart, the latest rookie to debut as a starter for this team, the latest pitcher unable to plug the void in the team’s rotation. Roberts thanked Stewart for his effort, an admirable but ineffective one in a 7-0 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers.
“It’s a tough stage,” Roberts said. “But I thought he handled himself well.”
Like temporary Dodgers starter Nick Tepesch five days earlier, Stewart absorbed a swift pounding. The Brewers thumped him for five runs in the second. Stewart recovered to last five innings. He spared the bullpen from incineration. For a 24-year-old who started the season in Class A, that output is commendable.
The performance fit a cycle of ineffectiveness, one started when Ross Stripling was shut down in late May and the Dodgers (43-37) trusted Mike Bolsinger as the fifth starter. Bolsinger failed and has since been converted into a minor league reliever. Tepesch has been claimed off waivers by Oakland.
The team will keep 19-year-old rookie Julio Urias in the starting rotation through the All-Star break. But they still need a reliable fifth option. Since Stripling exited the rotation, the Dodgers are 2-5 in games started by Bolsinger, Tepesch and Stewart. Roberts indicated there was “a high possibility” Stewart would pitch again in five days.
After spending a month using internal solutions, Andrew Friedman, the president of baseball operations, may search outside his organization. Or, at least, for a stopgap: The team will probably need a starter to replace Clayton Kershaw on Friday. Kershaw underwent an examination on his lower back on Wednesday in Los Angeles. The team did not provide an update on his condition after the game.
With Friday in doubt, Stewart may stick. The Dodgers do not have many other choices. “Circumstance has it that we’ve had to use different guys since we sent Ross out,” Roberts said.
The cheering section for Stewart made itself heard after the first at-bat, when he struck out shortstop Jonathan Villar with a 95-mph fastball. A group of fans behind the Dodgers’ dugout jumped up in their seats with excitement. The group saluted him with another ovation after he retired the first three batters of his night.
Stewart grew up in Normal, Ill., which is three hours south of Milwaukee, the home of Illinois State, where he played for four years. The Dodgers selected him in the sixth round of the 2014 draft. He had a 5.43 earned-run average in 18 outings with Class-A Rancho Cucamonga last season. He returned to the level to start 2016, and raced to triple-A Oklahoma City after 11 starts.
In his two seasons in the organization, Stewart impressed Gabe Kapler, the director of player development, with his confidence. There was “a pretty good swagger about him,” Kapler said, which manifested in his approach.
“When he does give up some damage, when he does get beat, he goes right back to offering his pitches and challenging hitters,” Kapler said.
Stewart needed resilience for the second inning. He gave up a one-out single on a soft grounder by first baseman Chris Carter. The ball trickled into the outfield through the area vacated by Chase Utley near second base on a defensive shift.
Stewart watched Yasiel Puig overrun a single into right by the next batter, third baseman Aaron Hill. The error put Carter at third base. Stewart steeled himself to try to end the flurry.
The next few at-bats displayed Stewart’s shallow pool of pitches. His slider is considered a work in progress. He relies upon fastballs and changeups. Down in the count, 3-1, to Kirk Nieuwenhuis, he flung a 93-mph fastball over the plate. Nieuwenhuis made the baseball disappear behind the left-field fence.
“I left some balls up for them,” Stewart said. “They don’t miss them here, apparently.”
Rattled already, Stewart succumbed to a second flurry. He gave up a single to Junior Guerra, the opposing pitcher. Villar singled. Stewart then walked second baseman Scooter Gennett to load the bases.
The next matchup pitted Stewart against Ryan Braun, the former National League MVP. Braun hit a belt-high fastball for a two-run double.
“What would I do differently?” Stewart said. “Probably just breathe a little more, and settle down.”
After the double, Stewart did that. He trotted back to the mound. He remained there for three more innings, long enough to deserve praise. But his outing only underscored the lack of stability in the rotation.
“At some point, we’ve got to get length,” Roberts said. “And we’ve got to win baseball games from that spot.”