Dodgers starter John Ely has performed well in spring training following… (Harry How / Getty Images )
Reporting from Phoenix — — Change is good, or so John Ely has come to realize.
The Dodgers pitcher was a rookie sensation early last year, but then the right-hander lost his way and, for part of the season, his spot on the big-league club. Coaches and teammates tried to help, but the 24-year-old Ely paid little heed.
"I didn't listen to what people were telling me," Ely said. "I probably should have."
But during the winter, Ely realized he did need to make changes, and so far this spring they've paid off — Ely has yet to allow a run in six innings of work. And a twist of fate this week might have widened the door for Ely's comeback.
When starter Jon Garland suffered a strained torso muscle Wednesday, the Dodgers said Ely and veteran Tim Redding were leading candidates to replace Garland if the injury forces him to miss one or more starts.
Ely "was hesitant a year ago" about altering his pitching mechanics and making other changes, "but [I'm] glad to see that he's more open-minded because it's made him better," Dodgers General Manager Ned Colletti said.
The changes also helped Ely's confidence, Manager Don Mattingly said.
"He's back to attacking the strike zone," Mattingly said. "That's what he did last year when he first came up."
Then, as last season went on, Mattingly said, Ely made a mistake common among young pitchers: "They get hit a little bit, and all of a sudden, it's like, 'I don't want them to hit it,' and they quit throwing strikes. That's when you really get in trouble.
"He learned," Mattingly said. "When you get away during the winter … you get quiet enough to really look at your season."
Ely sparkled at the start last year, winning three of four decisions in May. But after allowing four earned runs in five innings to the Atlanta Braves on June 6, the Illinois native lost his bearings and struggled to get outs.
In July he was sent down to triple-A Albuquerque for several weeks, then continued to labor as a September call-up. Ely lost his last five decisions of the season and, over his final six starts, posted a whopping 11.01 ERA. He finished the year 4-10.
"I took some time this off-season and basically just decided something's got to give," he said. "Sometimes for your career's sake, you've got to make a few adjustments."
Such as? Ely didn't want to disclose too much but, as one example, said, "I slid over on the [pitching] rubber a little bit toward the third-base side just to try things out and to see if I can 'plate' a few more of my breaking pitches. [It's] giving hitters a little different look that I didn't have last year."
Speaking of Garland, starter Chad Billingsley recalled that he suffered the same injury — a strained oblique muscle in his torso — in his rookie year in 2006 and was out 26 days.
"It's not a fun injury," Billingsley said. "It's just got to heal."
Garland's loss was a setback, but "we've got a lot of depth" in the starting rotation, Billingsley said. Still, he said, he's "hoping Jon heals quick."