With Hyun-Jin Ryu back, Dodgers relying on Big Three for stretch run

SAN DIEGO -- The Los Angeles Dodgers have discovered a few things about Hyun-Jin Ryu over the past two seasons since they signed him to a record $36 million contract for a Korean player. The most important lesson has been that less is more.

They fought him for a while on whether to throw bullpen sessions between starts but gave that one up early in 2013. The less they ask of him, the more Ryu seems to provide, with an almost effortless air.

For the second time this season, Ryu came off the disabled list after skipping the usual minor league rehab assignment and pitched reliably, going seven strong innings Sunday in the Dodgers’ 7-1 win over the San Diego Padres here.

Rust is rarely an issue for the big lefty. He seems to have an inherent feel for pitching. Fatigue sometimes can be a concern, which is why his two stays on the DL this season could prove a blessing in disguise as his sometimes-balky shoulder got a break.

“I felt comfortable. It didn’t take me long to find a rhythm,” Ryu said through an interpreter. “It was two weeks, but it felt like I had pitched a few days ago.”

When the Dodgers were pushing back Zack Greinke’s start because his elbow was sore and Ryu was still on the DL because of a strained gluteus muscle about a week ago, you could feel the strain building and threatening to break the team’s foundation.

To be sure, the Dodgers have relied on their big three starters all season. When Clayton Kershaw, Greinke and Ryu start, the Dodgers are 47-26. When anyone else starts, they are 30-34.

By wins above replacement (WAR), the three starters rank Nos. 1 (Kershaw), 2 (Greinke) and 7 (Ryu) on the team, and Ryu would rank a lot higher if he hadn’t missed so many games with the injuries. WAR is a cumulative statistic.

Now having exercised as much caution as they could afford, the Dodgers could have the heartbeat of their club in good order for the stretch run.

Mattingly announced after Sunday’s game that Dan Haren will have his Wednesday start pushed back to Friday, a move that gives the veteran a little more rest. Oh, by the way, the adjustment also makes it a little easier to line Greinke, Ryu and Kershaw up for the San Francisco Giants series starting Sept. 12.

That all worked out pretty well the last time, when the Dodgers swept three games at AT&T Park in late July behind those starters. That put them back in first place, and they’ve stayed there since; although their lead is now a slightly uncomfortable 2½ games.

So, yeah, seeing Greinke and Ryu look eminently healthy and eminently like themselves in back-to-back games here was about as reassuring a sight as Mattingly could enjoy, barring two heretofore unknown Kershaw clones stepping forward.

“Those three guys in particular are our guys. We think they’re as good as anybody, and any day can beat anybody,” Mattingly said. “It’s good to have them back and pitching well. Obviously, those are our guys and we kind of hang our hat on them.”

Ryu (14-6) allowed two ringing doubles in the first inning, then Mattingly noticed a change in his demeanor.

“You could see him right away find a quick gear and amp it up a little bit,” he said.

Ryu seems to hum along at about 75 percent capacity until something gets his attention. He got a big strikeout of Padres second baseman Jedd Gyorko with an elevated 94-mph fastball -- not his usual speed -- or the first inning would have been worse.

For a guy who hadn’t pitched in more than two weeks, he had a good feel for his curveball and a formidable changeup, which helped him pile up seven strikeouts. Ryu is 3-0 with a 0.69 ERA against San Diego this season.

As good as the Dodgers’ top three starters are, they still need run support. Greinke got virtually none here on Saturday. But the Dodgers’ cold spell ended in the eighth inning Sunday, when they erupted for four runs after scoring four in the previous 29 innings at San Diego.

Getting Yasiel Puig out of his monthlong slump will be a big priority for the Dodgers in September. But their No. 1 priority is using their three best starting pitchers to maximum effect.