Reporting from Houston — The last three batters Rubby De La Rosa faced before Tuesday were Cody Puckett, David Cook and Felix Perez of the Carolina Mudcats.
When he stepped on the mound in the eighth inning at Minute Maid Park, De La Rosa faced a slightly more daunting threesome: the heart of the Houston Astros batting order.
“A little different,” the
22-year-old right-hander quipped after retiring Hunter Pence, Carlos Lee and Brett Wallace in order during his major league debut.
A change of venue hasn’t rattled De La Rosa or fellow rookies Javy Guerra or Jerry Sands, all contributors to the Dodgers’ 5-4 victory that ended a losing streak at three games.
Guerra pitched a perfect ninth inning for the first save of his career. Sands hit his first grand slam, providing what might have felt like a month’s worth of runs for embattled starter Chad Billingsley. De La Rosa bolstered a beleaguered bullpen.
Youth is being served in a big way for the Dodgers in the wake of a spate of injuries that has landed eight players on the disabled list, and the 20-somethings intend to capitalize on their early promotions to the major leagues.
“These guys are only going to get better,” Billingsley said.
In a week of firsts for Sands, his towering grand slam might have been his most significant milestone.
The left fielder, who in recent days had collected his first home run and first four-hit game, crushed a 418-foot shot against starter J.A. Happ in the third inning, the ball landing beyond the wall in left-center field.
“I was just looking for something to hit and he left me a fastball up a little bit,” Sands said of the 2-0 pitch.
With one swing, Sands provided Billingsley with more run support than the right-hander had received in his previous four starts combined. Little wonder Billingsley had been 0-3 over that span despite a 2.25 earned-run average, his team supplying a not-so-grand total of three runs of offense.
Backed by Sands’ blast and Jay Gibbons’ first homer, Billingsley (3-4) gutted out six solid but unspectacular innings to record his first victory since April 22. Billingsley’s best work came when he wriggled out of a bases-loaded, none-out situation in the sixth inning, giving up only Chris Johnson’s sacrifice fly that trimmed the Dodgers’ lead to 5-4.
The Dodgers entrusted that advantage to De La Rosa in the eighth, and he completed the inning in matter-of-fact fashion. De La Rosa struck out Pence on a full-count, 97-mph fastball. He retired Lee on a groundout. He then struck out Wallace on an 81-mph curveball.
“He just really hasn’t shown any fear of anything,” said Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly, who would have sent De La Rosa back out for a second inning had he not pinch-hit for the reliever in the ninth. “And if I had his stuff I wouldn’t be afraid either.”
Sands has blossomed in his second month in the majors. He had three walks Monday — another first — and had reached base safely in nine of 10 plate appearances at one point starting Saturday.
“It feels good to get the kids being a part of it,” Mattingly said. “We’ve kind of had to call them up out of necessity with injuries and things that’s happened, and you don’t really want to for that reason.
“But it is one of the benefits that these guys got a shot probably earlier than they would in another case, and that experience is going to be valuable for them.”