The moment was not too big for J.T. Chargois.
The Dodgers reliever, who lost three seasons to elbow injuries and who had not pitched in a big league game in 18 months, replaced ace Clayton Kershaw in the seventh inning of a one-run game with an opening day sellout crowd of 53,595 in Dodger Stadium buzzing with energy and anticipation.
Chargois acted like he owned the place. The hard-throwing 27-year-old right-hander, on an opening day roster for the first time, retired the top of the San Francisco Giants order on 12 pitches, 10 of them strikes, an inning of dominance that was one of the few Dodgers highlights in Thursday’s 1-0 loss.
“It’s his first game in a while, and you really never know what to expect from a guy who hasn’t pitched on this stage, on opening day,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “He’s very excitable. He has a youthful enthusiasm.
“We sort of threw him into the fire, and he executed pitches. His stuff really plays. I’m still trying to learn him, but from what I’ve seen so far, there’s a lot of emotion, but he’s shown he can channel it in the right way.”
Chargois had not pitched in a major league game since Oct. 1, 2016, when he threw a scoreless inning for the Minnesota Twins against the White Sox in Chicago.
He admitted to feeling some nerves when bullpen coach Mark Prior informed him he was entering the game, “but I channeled that into a lot of focused energy and just executed pitches,” he said. “It’s just tunnel vision. That’s all it really is.”
That narrow focus made it tough for reporters to pry any kind of big-picture perspective from Chargois about the significance of his performance.
Chargois was a second-round pick of the Twins in 2012 but missed the 2013 and 2014 minor league seasons recovering from elbow ligament-replacement surgery.
He returned in 2015 and reached the major leagues by 2016, compiling a 1-1 record and 4.50 ERA in 25 games for the Twins. But more elbow pain limited Chargois to two games with triple-A Rochester in 2017.
Chargois spent the entire offseason studying video and overhauling his mechanics until he found a delivery, arm slot and arm speed that felt more natural and repeatable.
The Twins tried to slip Chargois through waivers in order to clear a 40-man roster spot, and the Dodgers, always on the lookout for a good relief reclamation project, claimed Chargois on Feb. 23, almost two weeks into spring training.
As he walked off the mound Thursday, did Chargois take a moment to soak up the atmosphere and appreciate how far he had come in the last few years?
“That never really crossed my mind,” he said. “We were down by a run. I was focused on cheering on the guys and hoping for an offensive rally.”
The Dodgers have had a recent history of turning seemingly washed-up starters and struggling relievers into bullpen stoppers, the prime examples being Joe Blanton and Brandon Morrow, who emerged as closer Kenley Jansen’s primary setup men in 2016 and 2017, respectively.
Could Chargois’ career follow a similar trajectory?
“I think you’re looking too much into the future,” Chargois said. “My focus is on whatever I can do to help the team right now. Every opportunity, each day, is a blessing. My focus is on taking one day at a time, one pitch at a time. It’s really quite simple. It’s nothing too complex.”
Chargois’ repertoire is equally straightforward. He attacks hitters with a fastball that sits in the 95-mph range and touches 96-97 mph. He mixes in a sharp slider and a changeup.
After replacing Kershaw to start the seventh inning Thursday, Chargois struck out leadoff man Austin Jackson with a slider, got Joe Panik to ground out to second and struck out Andrew McCutchen on three pitches, slider, slider, changeup.
“That was fun, man, especially on opening day,” Chargois said. “All the fans who came out were awesome. It was a great atmosphere. It’s just tough because we were so close the whole game. It was a tough loss.”
The efforts of Chargois and Josh Fields, who threw a 1-2-3 eighth, and Tony Cingrani, who retired the side in order in the ninth, gave Roberts some confidence that the Dodgers will be able to overcome the loss of expected setup man Tom Koehler to a shoulder injury.
“They threw the heck out of it,” Roberts said of his relievers. “The velocities were considerably up from spring training. All those guys, Chargois, Fields, Cingrani, were very good, so that’s a positive.”