Brandon McCarthy's return provides another lift for Dodgers

LOS ANGELES -- The latest player on the Los Angeles Dodgers’ roster to give the club a boost was making his 2016 debut on Sunday.

Brandon McCarthy, out of action for 14 months after Tommy John surgery, offered the most recent gem from a starting pitcher -- this one a tidy five-inning outing, in which he gave up just two hits without a run. The Dodgers finished off a series sweep with a 4-1 victory over the Colorado Rockies.

Since Clayton Kershaw was diagnosed with his mild disc herniation, the Dodgers have received solid outings from Kenta Maeda, Bud Norris, Scott Kazmir and McCarthy, in that order. And just how good has it been?

The key contributors to the team’s current four-game win streak have combined to give up one run over 23 innings, while striking out 32. Dodgers starters have given up just 2.3 hits per game over the past four days and delivered a nearly spotless 0.39 ERA.

Each start offered its own reason for optimism.

Maeda looked like he was ready to be the steadying influence the Dodgers will need with Kershaw out for an unknown amount of time. Norris looked to be more than just a stopgap replacement. And Kazmir looked like he is about to turn a corner after an up-and-down first half to start his Dodgers tenure.

McCarthy, though, might have been the most pleasant surprise of all. Expectations are always tempered for a player coming back from major surgery, but the veteran right-hander showed he might be ready to contribute in a big way in the second half.

“It was great; this was as good as I’ve seen him in years past,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “The fastball had late life; he threw the breaking ball when he needed to, mixed in a couple changeups. Eight punchouts in five innings; he just kind of continued what our starters have done this entire series. We’re really excited for him. He drove in a run too. It was good to see.”

Indeed, McCarthy contributed on offense with a bases-loaded walk. The Dodgers also received home runs from Trayce Thompson and Yasmani Grandal in Sunday's victory. This day, though, was highlighted by what McCarthy did from the mound.

“I was surprised by his secondary pitches, and [his] velocity was there. I mean, 94 [mph]; might have touched 95,” Grandal said. “I was very surprised to see that. It seemed like he didn’t miss a step from last year. It was a good time to step up.”

The high velocity was the surest sign that McCarthy did not return as a guy who is in reinvent mode. His full arsenal was present on Sunday, giving him a solid base from which to move forward.

“Well, it felt surprisingly normal,” McCarthy said. “I wasn’t really expecting it to be that way while getting back into the swing of things. But it felt normal. I didn’t feel nervous; I really didn’t feel anything going on that I was maybe expecting. I just sort of settled in out there.”

The short day (just 72 pitches) not only eased McCarthy back into action, he was able to leave the game on a high note as the Rockies’ lineup was set to bat against the right-hander for the third time.

“We’re still monitoring pitch count, making sure that we’re conservative with things,” McCarthy said. “I had not built up too far in my rehab outings. We got into a good place where we were two times through the lineup and pitch count was manageable, so [Roberts] said, 'Good job,' and got me out.”

And McCarthy is finally able to distance himself from the day his right arm failed him. It was bad enough that he was injured during that April 25, 2015, start at San Diego, but he walked off the mound that day having just given up back-to-back singles and a three-run home run. It was not something that was easy to forget.

“The first strikeout I was like, ‘OK, at least, if nothing else, I didn’t end my career with a home run to Justin Upton,’” McCarthy said after picking up the win on Sunday. “I can still have a chance for that, but right now, I got away from it. That was the first thing I thought of, but other than that, it became business as usual.”

The simple way to look at it all is that every day the Dodgers get a quality outing from a starter is one day closer to Kershaw’s return. The club still has not put a timetable on when their ace will be back.

Next in line is Julio Urias. Monday's start could be the rookie’s final big league outing for a while. The Dodgers always intended to limit Urias’ innings this season, and at this point, he is about three starts beyond the club’s first potential stopping point.

After struggling for so long trying to find somebody to step up alongside Kershaw, suddenly the Dodgers are overloaded with key contributors.

“The better we do without Kershaw," Grandal said, "that just means we’re going to be that much better when he comes back.”