Stults pitching with heavy heart
Dodgers lefty competing to be fifth starter after mother's death
PHOENIX -- Spring Training morning "B" games don't normally choke up participants with emotion, but Saturday's was different for Dodgers fifth-starter candidate Eric Stults.
Two weeks before camp opened, Stults' mother died after a brief illness. On Saturday, his grieving father, Dave, was in the sparse gathering at Camelback Ranch-Glendale to watch his son pitch and set sad thoughts aside.
"It felt good to throw well and have my dad watching," said Stults, who pitched three scoreless innings against the White Sox. "I know this has been very difficult for him. My mom loved the game of baseball as much as anybody. I know she's watching every game from up above. I just wanted to make my dad proud today."
Stults came into the game with a 12.46 ERA in three previous outings, looking nothing like the left-hander that threw a four-hit shutout at the White Sox last June 25.
"I've been flying open all spring, especially with my top half," said Stults. "Last spring, I came in with the mind-set to pitch with conviction, throw my best pitch every time. This spring, I've been trying to feel for things too much in the previous games instead of trying to be aggressive. As of right now, I haven't thrown well and everybody knows that. I have to get back on track. I need to show consistency and let them know what I'm capable of."
Stults is still considered a long shot for the fifth-starter job, which management would prefer go to a veteran. The leading candidates are Eric Milton, Jason Schmidt and Shawn Estes -- all veterans coming off injuries -- and Claudio Vargas. Outsiders include Jeff Weaver (who will probably make the club as a reliever), James McDonald and Ramon Troncoso. Despite rumors of interest in free agent Pedro Martinez -- and a recruiting call from Manny Ramirez -- the club is not engaged in contract talks with his agent.
Out of the group of in-camp candidates, Stults is the only one to have thrown a Major League shutout last year, when he was called up to the Major Leagues three times and went 2-3 with a 3.49 ERA in seven starts. After shutting out the White Sox, Stults went winless in his next four starts and was back in Triple-A by July 22, replaced in the rotation by Clayton Kershaw.
"He was good," manager Joe Torre said after watching Stults on Saturday. "He has to be in the running. It's not fair to get people out of it when you don't have a clear-cut leader. He needs to get a good feel and hopefully he continues doing what we saw today."
Torre is expected to narrow down the field after Monday's split-squad games, three weeks before Opening Day. It will take that long to stretch out any of the candidates in preparation for being a starter, and there aren't enough game innings available to stretch out more than two while also increasing innings for the other four starters.
In sort of an elimination round, Stults started Saturday. Vargas and Milton will pitch Sunday. Schmidt was pushed back a day because of "body soreness" and will start in Monday's split-squad game against Oakland, followed by Estes. Hiroki Kuroda will start the other split-squad game Monday against Seattle.
Scott Elbert, at one time considered a possible fifth-starter candidate, missed three days of workouts because of the flu and lost eight pounds. He was scheduled to pitch in Saturday's "B" game, but instead threw a brief bullpen session and said he was still weak. He's now trying to win the second left-hander role.
And Stults said he's just trying to win a spot on the team while trying to cope with the heartbreak of losing a parent.
"Today was a day of joy and it was good for my dad," Stults said. "Obviously, he's been struggling with the adjustment of not having my mom there. We have something to celebrate tonight. It's been a tough spring, but life goes on. It's time to focus on the season. It's a difficult period for us. I'm sure she'll be heavy on my heart for years to come."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.