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Dodgers' Nathan Eovaldi is capitalizing on early opportunity

The 21-year-old right-hander is one of the latest young players forced into the major leagues earlier than planned. Eovaldi has a 1-1 record, an earned-run average of 2.05 and an impressive composure.

August 25, 2011|By Jim Peltz
  • Dodgers rookie starter Nathan Eovaldi delivers a pitch against the Houston Astros during a game two weeks ago at Dodger Stadium.
Dodgers rookie starter Nathan Eovaldi delivers a pitch against the Houston… (Danny Moloshok / Associated…)

Reporting from St. Louis — Pitching for Alvin (Texas) High in 2007, Nathan Eovaldi felt a pop in his elbow.

Never good news. Especially not for a player who, as a 17-year-old junior, already was a highly regarded prospect.

The diagnosis: severe ligament damage requiring surgery.

Yet, four years later, here he is the big leagues, a member of the Dodgers' starting rotation, facing All-Star hitters such as Albert Pujols and Ryan Braun, and getting outs.

Eovaldi, now 21 and less than a month removed from double-A Chattanooga, has given up five runs over 22 innings in four big league starts. The right-hander has a record of 1-1, an earned-run average of 2.05 and composure that has been as impressive as his pitches' effectiveness.

"He sure has the presence of a kid a lot older than 21," said St. Louis third baseman David Freese, who grounded out three times against Eovaldi in the Dodgers' 2-1 win against the Cardinals on Monday night at Busch Stadium.

Eovaldi (pronounced E-vald-ee) gave up one run in five innings in that game, a home run to Lance Berkman, who also offered praise.

"He's 94 [mph with his fastball] with a good slider and is really deceptive," Berkman said.

With the Dodgers long out of the playoff hunt — they are 11 games behind National League West-leading Arizona as they open a six-game homestand Friday against Colorado — young players such as Eovaldi have given hopeful fans a rooting interest.

Javy Guerra, a 25-year-old rookie, picked up his 11th save in 12 chances behind Eovaldi on Monday in St. Louis. The Dodgers are also starting rookie Justin Sellers, 25, at shortstop and have gone with shortstop Dee Gordon and outfielder Jerry Sands, both 23, as starters at times this season.

And there was Rubby De La Rosa, 22, who was called up from the minors in May and flashed a 100-mph fastball while posting a 4-5 record and 3.71 ERA with 60 strikeouts in 602/3 innings. But De La Rosa suffered a season-ending arm injury July 31, which is why Eovaldi made an earlier-than-planned debut for the Dodgers.

His ascent to the big leagues is thrilling for Eovaldi's hometown of Alvin (population 23,000), which is located between Houston and Galveston and also produced Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan.

"It's electric back here in Alvin," said Mike Rogers, who coached Eovaldi at Alvin High. "It's [Eovaldi's] dream come true, but we're getting to live it also, through him."

What's made Eovaldi so effective so fast?

"His fastball command is what separates him from a lot of young pitchers," Dodgers General Manager Ned Colletti said. "Most guys who are power arms, the fastball command is the last thing to come, that or a third pitch. In his case he's worked diligently at it."

Eovaldi also developed this season a third pitch, a slider, to complement his fastball and curveball.

With the extra pitch, "my confidence started to rise because I was able to strike guys out," he said.

Players and coaches said Eovaldi also hides the ball well in his delivery so that his pitch seems to jump toward batters. And he has a good pickoff move. He caught the Cardinals' Jon Jay off first base in Monday's game.

"He's also the hardest worker," said Rogers, the high school coach. "He's not a real vocal kid. But what people are going to find out about Nate is he is intensely competitive. He's going to find a way to beat you."

Eovaldi said pitching to the likes of Pujols hasn't been intimidating.

"It's fun trying to compete against the best, that's the way I look at it," Eovaldi said. "They still have to hit your stuff."

Just ask the Cardinals' Freese.

Eovaldi "has something going for him," Freese said. "If he keeps working, he's definitely going to stick around for a long time."

Just maybe not for too much longer in the Dodgers' rotation this season. Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly said Eovaldi might be moved to the bullpen in the not-too-distant future.

But it won't be a demotion.

Mattingly said the Dodgers want to make sure Eovaldi doesn't pitch too many innings and put the valuable arm at risk.

james.peltz@latimes.com

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