The fate of the Dodgers rotation may rely upon the calluses on Rich Hill's middle finger. As time ticks away on Clayton Kershaw and as the front office scrambles for solutions, the health of Hill has become imperative.
On Wednesday afternoon, hours before a 12-2 loss to the Colorado Rockies, Hill fired 52 pitches inside a Coors Field bullpen. He concentrated on fastballs and curveballs, the pitches that force his finger to scrape the seam of the baseball, testing the blister that has sidelined him since July 17. Hill reported no unwanted symptoms, clearing the way for him to make his Dodgers debut as early as Saturday.
"No issues whatsoever," Hill said. "That was really encouraging."
The Dodgers welcome good news. A few hours after Hill tested his finger, Colorado obliterated a spot starter. The Rockies swatted four homers and hung nine runs on rookie Brock Stewart. Colorado has scored 19 runs in two games here, a troubling figure even in the thin air of Coors Field.
Before the game, the Dodgers completed a procedural maneuver that revealed the increasing probability that Kershaw will not pitch again this season. The team shifted him to the 60-day disabled list during a flurry on roster moves. Kershaw is not eligible to pitch until Aug. 27.
That date has little meaning for Kershaw's recovery. The organization does not expect him to be ready by then. He has not pitched in a game since June 26 and he has not picked up a baseball since experiencing a setback after a simulated game on July 16. Kershaw no longer feels pain in his back, but still needs to demonstrate improved strength and stabilization in the area, Roberts said.
Given the length of his layoff, Kershaw would probably require multiple outings to build up his pitch count to a major league standard. Roberts declined to say when Kershaw would need to resume his throwing program in order to return this season.
"We haven't talked about that," Roberts said. "It probably makes sense to do that. But we're taking the approach of, he's going to get back as soon as he can. And when he can pick up a baseball, at that point in time, we'll see where we're at, if it's even feasible."
With Kershaw, nothing has changed. And as the days pass, that's the problem.
The Dodgers promoted Stewart for Wednesday to provide an extra day of rest for Kenta Maeda. Stewart began this season in Class-A Rancho Cucamonga, and raced through the minor leagues. He made a spot start for the Dodgers on June 29 in Milwaukee.
A.J. Ellis studied the tape of that outing on Tuesday. In one inning, the Brewers flicked a few hits, punished Stewart with a home run and strung together a five-run rally. In the other four, Stewart sat down his opponents. "It was not as big a struggle as you would think," Ellis said.
From his vantage point behind the plate on Wednesday, Ellis witnessed a reprise. After a pair of singles in the first inning, Stewart pumped a 95-mph fastball at the waist of All-Star third baseman Nolan Arenado. A three-run blast ensued. Two batters later, first baseman Mark Reynolds crushed a flat slider for a two-run shot.
"That was a real bad pitch," Stewart said. "They went out of the park, so there could have been better pitches, for sure."
Stewart recovered and carried the Dodgers into the fifth inning. Then he combusted, surrendering a two-run homer to second baseman D.J. LeMahieu and a solo shot to outfielder Carlos Gonzalez. Stewart yielded two more singles before Roberts took mercy on him.
"In this ballpark, if you're not throwing quality strikes, you're going to pay for it," Roberts said.
Stewart will return to the minors on Thursday. For stability, the Dodgers will turn to Hill and Brett Anderson, though neither pitcher can be considered a bastion of reliability. Anderson was scheduled to make one more rehabilitation start as he recovers from the back surgery he underwent in March.
That sets the stage for Hill this weekend. Hill cannot claim himself capable of replacing Kershaw. But he did post a 2.25 earned-run average in 14 starts with Oakland this season. His blister derailed him last month. He has undergone laser therapy, twice a day, for two weeks, as he tries to build a callus on the finger.
The blister formed in the humidity of Houston on July 7. Hill skipped a start to let it heal. Five pitches into his outing two weeks ago, the skin reopened after five pitches.
Another test will come soon. The Dodgers are depending on him.
"I'm just ready to get back," Hill said. "And get going."