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Hyun-Jin Ryu's return means Dodgers gaining more strength

LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Dodgers have been unwrapping miles and miles of bandages this season, and they did more unveiling Thursday night.

Hyun-Jin Ryu represented the latest Dodgers player to return from injury, firing a wobbly 4⅔ innings at the San Diego Padres in an eventual 6-0 defeat, the Dodgers' third consecutive loss after a five-game winning streak.

Ryu followed in the footsteps of Brandon McCarthy, who returned a little more verve Sunday while firing five scoreless innings at the Colorado Rockies.

But the Dodgers were realistic and not expecting total domination, just a baseline from which to move forward. They got that, seeing Ryu work through an opponent with a fastball that ranged from 89-92 mph, and offspeed pitches that sometimes dipped into the upper 60s.

"That's how he was before, pitching in all spectrums of velocity when he was so dominate for us in 2013, 2014," said catcher A.J. Ellis, who was pleased to see his old battery-mate make a return to the mound. "He knows how to pitch. He's such an amazing athlete out there on the mound, he has such an amazing feel and great body control. He adds and subtracts really well. I'm just really excited to see him out there today."

Ryu gave up single runs in the first, second and fourth innings, and then allowed a three more in the fifth, an inning when Yasiel Puig misjudged a line drive from the Padres' Alex Dickerson for a two-run triple. By then, Ryu was showing fatigue as he continued to work himself toward full strength.

"Yes, my velocity went down in the fifth inning compared to the first few innings, but we'll just have to adjust as I go a little more, play more games," Ryu said through an interpreter. "Hopefully I will feel better."

Ryu said he is confident he can find more velocity moving forward, but Ellis suggested that he shouldn't sweat it. Ellis said Ryu is savvy enough to get hitters out and felt that Friday's effort was good enough to win major leagues games with a little refinement.

"Even from the beginning, I was never a first-half pitcher, always a second-half guy coming back later with strong velocity," Ryu said. "But compared to when I was healthy, of course the velocity is down. But as I play more games, I think I will get that back."

Ryu was only one in a string of more recoveries that are on the way. Clayton Kershaw (mild herniated disc) already is playing catch. The earliest he can return is for the start of the second half on July 15. There is also Joc Pederson working on a return from a bruised shoulder joint, Andre Ethier trying to come back from a spiral fracture in his right leg, and Brett Anderson on the mend from arthroscopic back surgery.

Officially, the Dodgers already are at the halfway point of the season, moving past their 81st game over a week ago. The unofficial midway point comes Sunday when the All-Star break begins.

So are the Dodgers healing fast enough to make a difference this season?

The simple answer is yes. The Dodgers own the second wild card at the moment, a half-game behind the New York Mets, so they are postseason eligible. The Dodgers are 2½ games clear of the St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins, with the Pittsburgh Pirates three games back. In the National League West, the Dodgers are in second place, 6½ games behind the San Francisco Giants.

The reality, though, is that the Dodgers might never have the team they envisioned, even when all of the regulars have returned. Kershaw and Pederson might return to their norms, but will Ethier and Anderson have enough time to round into the level that was expected this year?

The Dodgers are going to have to come to some kind of conclusion in three weeks when the non-waiver trade deadline approaches. Does the front office deal young prospects for outfield and/or pitching help for the current club, or does it give the original vision of the club the chance to find itself?

Where Ryu fits into the mix remains to be seen. When Kershaw comes back at some point in the second half, somebody will have to be pushed out of the rotation. At this point, the main candidates are Ryu or Bud Norris.

Ryu's first pitch of the game might have been a sign that a hard night's work was ahead as his fastball registered 89 mph on the stadium radar gun. His fourth pitch clocked in at 92 mph, but it was deposited over the wall in right-center field by Melvin Upton Jr. for a home run.

Ryu's rehab starts were marked by low radar-gun readings and runs scored, the former more troublesome since it suggests the left-hander might have to forge on with an altered style in order to get batters out.

But manager Dave Roberts isn't expecting a reinvented Ryu, only a continuation of the pitcher that changed speeds so well in the past. Pitchers on the mend from shoulder surgery often are on uncharted territory these days more than pitchers on the way back from Tommy John surgery.

"I think that the arm speed, the repeatability mechanics was really good and has been good," Roberts said. "His feel for pitching is still there. But yeah, there are a lot more cases of guys coming back from Tommy John, as far as the elbow, and the shoulder is a tricky one. But I think the mechanics have not been compromised. Just to see how he comes in tomorrow and the next day will be telling."