Column: With Tony Gonsolin pitching like a top cat, Dodgers just might make it to October

Tony Gonsolin has emerged as the unlikely ace of the Dodgers' pitching staff.
Tony Gonsolin has emerged as the unlikely ace of the Dodgers’ pitching staff.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

In a season during which Clayton Kershaw has broken the team strikeout record and Sandy Koufax will get a statue, the Dodgers’ legendary pitching legacy just added a new ace.

Tony Gonsolin?

Well, uh, yeah.

He is barely visible behind his long black hair and beard, and barely recognizable with his newfound insistence on throwing strikes.

He is the pitcher who only became a pitcher because his college team ran out of pitchers. He is the pitcher with the career 9.45 postseason earned-run average. He is the piggyback pitcher, one who shared his first two starts this season with Tyler Anderson because the Dodgers didn’t trust him to do it all himself.

And, oh yeah, of course, he is the pitcher who in his four Dodgers seasons has been best known for his affinity for house cats.

Pitcher Tony Gonsolin tossed another scoreless outing and Mookie Betts hit a homer as the Dodgers beat the Angels 2-0 on Tuesday at Dodger Stadium.

He used to wear cat photos on his cleats. He writes “MeoWW” on Twitter after good games. Dieter Ruehle plays cat songs and jingles on the Dodger Stadium organ after every strikeout.


He is perhaps the least likely pitcher to become the staff tiger. But Tuesday night, at the risk of overdoing this whole feline metaphor thing, he roared.

A few hours after Walker Buehler confirmed the severity of an elbow strain that has left his season in doubt, Gonsolin showed up, coolly pulled the Dodgers back off the ledge and made them seriously wonder.

Maybe they really can walk this tightrope until October.

Maybe they can survive with a rotation led by Gonsolin, Julio Urías and Kershaw until they either trade for another starting pitcher or Buehler resurfaces in September.

Maybe it really is too early to panic, which the Dodgers didn’t do once during Gonsolin’s 6 1/3 innings of one-hit pitching in a 2-0 victory over the Angels before a large and audibly relieved gathering at Dodger Stadium.

Granted, the joint nearly lost its mind when maddening Craig Kimbrel loaded the bases with one out in the ninth before striking out Jared Walsh and Max Stassi to end it, but that’s for another column.

The story Tuesday was that Gonsolin now leads the majors with an 8-0 record and 1.42 ERA, and that is not a misprint.

“This is a new ballplayer,” said manager Dave Roberts.

The story moving forward is that if he keeps this up, he could be the National League starter here next month in the All-Star game, and that is not total fantasy.

“He’s earned it, he’s done it, the numbers don’t lie,” said Roberts. “If that comes to fruition, that’s great, I hope he gets the opportunity.”

Not that you could tell any of this from the reticent Gonsolin, who showed up at the postgame news conference alone while wondering why he wasn’t being joined by Tuesday’s home run hitting hero.

“Where’s Mookie?” he asked about right fielder Mookie Betts, who hit an eighth-inning homer to extend the lead to 2-0.

This is all you, he was told.

He shrugged, like, OK, whatever. He then explained his recent success in the plainest yet most understandable of terms.

“Just attacking guys,” he said. “I made a point this spring training to just throw strikes and see what happens. Try to go give whoever is hitting my best stuff and whatever happens, happens.”

What happened Tuesday was perfectly suited to the 28-year-old right-hander’s personality. Boring, yet brilliant.

Dodgers right-hander Walker Buehler works in the first inning against the San Francisco Giants on Friday.
Walker Buehler works in the first inning against the San Francisco Giants on Friday. He injured his right elbow in the game and may not return to the Dodgers’ rotation until September.
(Jed Jacobsohn / Associated Press)

He walked two, struck out six, gave up only a single to Shohei Ohtani, and pretty much wore the Angels down until he was suddenly lifted by Roberts after retiring Matt Duffy to begin the seventh. It was his longest stint this season, so one might think he would have no problem getting lifted.

Think again. The guy is not only pitching like an All-Star, he’s believing like one, and later exclaimed that he definitely wanted to remain in the game.

“Absolutely,” he said. “I definitely wanted to stay out there. Doc had to say, ‘Give me the ball.’ ”

Roberts, who will err on the side of shorter stints with his starters after losing Buehler, was thrilled with the resistance.

“He should want to stay in … but … I’ve got to manage the next start and ensuing starts through October,” said Roberts.

When the season started, Gonsolin wasn’t guaranteed to survive April, and even Roberts admitted that he never saw this coming. After all, the last time anyone saw Gonsolin before this spring, he was giving up four runs to the Atlanta Braves in two innings in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series.

He began this season as a role pitcher, a sixth starter, a safety net, and for Roberts to admit he saw him as anything else, well …

“I’d like to say yes, [but] to do what he’s done for three months is pretty remarkable,” Roberts said. “He’s planted in our rotation and he’s earned that.”

He’s earned it with more hard strikes — 60 strikeouts, 20 walks — and less distracting finesse. He’s not trying to fool anyone anymore. He’s simply throwing it up there and daring them to hit it. And they’re not.

Dave Roberts is not happy with how the Dodgers are playing, and the team’s shutout loss to the Giants underlined the team’s struggle to drive in runs.

“I go out there and compete when it’s my day, trying to earn that spot,” Gonsolin said. “I’ve got to go as long as I can and keep us in the ballgame.”

He’s already gone longer than during any other major league season — 63 1/3 innings — but Roberts thinks this could just be the beginning.

“This is as confident as he’s been,” said Roberts. “He’s scratching the surface on some really good things.”

And at just the right time, particularly Tuesday, in the wake of the Buehler news and the weekend’s three-game sweep by the San Francisco Giants that dropped the Dodgers into a first-place tie in the National League West with the San Diego Padres.

“To lose Walker, he’s really come to the foreground,” said Roberts of Gonsolin. “To throw up zeros for six plus innings … right now there’s not a whole lot of margin for error … it was much needed.”

So, OK, Catman, what does it feel like to be called the new staff ace?

“That’s fine,” said Gonsolin with a sigh, making it very clear that it doesn’t matter.

Well, it does. And he does. And, yeah, it’s all very much needed.