ST. LOUIS -- Hyun-Jin Ryu admits he'll probably be a bit anxious when he makes his Game 3 start Monday night at Busch Stadium, understandable since it will be just his third postseason start -- his first on the road -- and he hasn't made a pitch to a major league hitter in more than three weeks.
The rest of the team might be less anxious than he is.
"If it wasn't Hyun-Jin, I would probably be a lot more nervous," Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said.
After two seasons in close quarters with their South Korean left-hander, the Dodgers have a pretty good read on what Ryu can and cannot do. He often operates best on extra rest, has at times fought them on having to throw bullpen sessions between starts and rarely looks like he's using maximum effort on the mound. Maybe that's the reason he can miss so much time and come back without showing much, if any, rust.
It's pretty uncanny. If there's any lesson from the first two times Ryu was out with an injury this season, it’s that he'll likely be on a pitch limit somewhere in the 80s -- which could prove problematic with the Dodgers' bullpen problems -- but he might be as sharp as ever.
He missed a little more than three weeks with the same injury, a sore shoulder, in early May and returned to pitch six strong innings on May 21. He threw 89 pitches and allowed two runs on nine hits, striking out nine against the New York Mets. Ryu would go 4-0 with a 3.20 ERA in his next four starts.
He went 18 days between starts with a strained gluteus muscle in August and returned to pitch seven four-hit innings in a 14-6 win over the San Diego Padres. He went 2-0 with a 1.98 ERA in the first two starts back before having to leave his last start, in San Francisco, with more soreness in his shoulder.
Ryu said he feels better than either of the previous times he bounced back from injuries to go straight to the mound.
"I feel very confident right now," he said through an interpreter at the Dodgers' optional workout at Busch Stadium on Sunday evening. "My arm feels really good. My shoulder feels really strong, and I have a pretty good feeling I'll be able to put in a good game tomorrow."
After the two previous injuries, Ryu didn't need to tune up with a minor league rehab assignment. He seems to have a permanent feel for pitching.
"I watched him throw his pens [bullpen session] and stuff. and it's like he doesn't really miss the glove that much. And he could be out 20, 21 days, that's usually the length before he pitches again, but in the middle he's pitching or throwing and he just seems sharp," Mattingly said. "He's got such a simple motion and delivery that it seems like he's playing pitch and catch."
Ryu was 14-7 with a 3.38 ERA, but he was limited to 26 starts and 152 innings because of the injuries. The Dodgers think that might be the good news. If he can avoid another flare-up of shoulder irritation or some other malady, his arm should be fresh, and extra rest has tended to make him better, not worse. Fewer regular-season innings could equate to more postseason innings.
"He feels like he's back close to 100 percent, and he's going to be a big factor for us hopefully getting to where we need to go," catcher A.J. Ellis said. "We definitely need him throwing a lot of innings for us this next month."
What happens when Ryu comes out of Monday's game will have a cascade effect on the rest of the Dodgers' pitching plans in this series. Clayton Kershaw threw off flat ground for about 10 minutes Sunday. It's fairly obvious the Dodgers are lining him up to start on three days' rest in Game 4, though Mattingly wouldn't admit as much. He did say that, should Ryu have to be pulled in the early innings, Dan Haren -- the presumptive Game 4 starter -- would take the mound in his place. That would automatically lead to Kershaw pitching Tuesday. So, is that the only scenario that sees Kershaw coming back on short rest?
"I didn’t say that," Mattingly said.
Will whether the Dodgers win or lose Game 3 be the factor that determines it?
"Win/loss won't have anything to do with it," Mattingly said, which sounds an awful lot like Kershaw will pitch even if the Dodgers win, which is exactly what he did against the Atlanta Braves last postseason. So, in short order, we'll all be wondering how Kershaw will perform after having given up 15 earned runs in his past two postseason starts against the St. Louis Cardinals. But before that, there are so many questions to ponder about another Dodgers lefty.
"He throws strikes and he gets out," Matt Kemp said of Ryu. "We have all the confidence in the world in him, and we're going to go out there and back him up and try to get Game 3."
That last part might be the key. With the Dodgers' pitching plans in flux over the next few days, they'll take all the run support they can get.