Schmidt’s long road back ends with victory, tentative hope for future

ladodgers58In a Dodgers season full of compelling stories, add one more that is perhaps the most unlikely: The return of Jason Schmidt.

VERO BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 27: Jason Schmidt #2...
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The veteran right-hander signed a three-year $47 million contract before the 2007 season and, before the other night, had given the Dodgers just six starts in return. That comes to $7.8 million per start — a lot of Dodger Dogs. A 200-inning-a-year workhorse for his whole career before donning the blue, it has not been unfair to call Schmidt a bust — or, as T.J. Simers called Schmidt while writing just before he took the mound, “an all-time blunder.”

But, as I wrote in Spring Training when it looked like Schmidt might make the rotation to start the season in the five-hole, few pitchers are as tough as he is underneath the cap. The three-time All Star is a gamer — not the kind of guy who denies being handed the ball every fifth day because he feels a little sore.

Yet neither Schmidt nor the Dodgers expected his shoulder to be so damaged that he’d not pitch in a major league game between June 16, 2007 and July 20, 2009. And last night, Schmidt started earning that huge salary again, picking up just his second victory as a Dodger and his first since April 4, 2007. Though it sure looked at the start that this comeback story wouldn’t have a very happy ending against the Reds last night.

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 16:  Jason Schmidt #29 ...

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The first three batters Schmidt faced hammered long drives off the wall — including slap-hitting Reds leadoff man Willy Taveras who hit one off the top of the wall. It looked be a homer, but was ruled a triple upon replay. No matter, Jerry Hariston promptly doubled in score Taveras anyway. The Reds plated three in the first inning — and could have had more if not for Brandon Phillips failing to run out what he thought was a routine fly ball that Andre Ethier lost in the sun. Phillips was easily gunned out at second to end a rough 35-pitch first inning for Schmidt, whose fastball didn’t top 87 all night.

Happily for him, the Dodgers scored four runs of their own in the bottom of the first, and got two more in the bottom of the second on Manny Ramirez‘ two-run shot that pushed him past Mickey Mantle into 15th place on the all-time homer list. The Dodgers won 7-5, pushing their major-league-leading record to 59-34.

Final line for Schmidt: 5 IP, 5H, 3ER, 3BB, 2K on 91 pitches.

Not too shabby, but Schmidt will have to show a little more next time out. Though the Dodgers are 8 games clear of Colorado and 8.5 ahead of San Francisco in the NL West, the time in the season where Joe Torre can be patient with a struggling pitcher is long gone. If Schmidt does not improve — and that doesn’t just mean on his final line, but keep batters from smashing it all over the park — Torre will likely go right back to Jeff Weaver to take over the back of the rotation.

What Schmidt has going for him is that he’s always been a starter in his career, while Weaver has learned how to warm up and come out of the bullpen. It’s hard to see Schmidt working as a long reliever for this club. I’m guessing that if Schmidt does not start throwing better, it’ll probably be due to the fact that his arm is not yet back to strength, and the Dodgers would put him on the DL again rather than put him in the bullpen.

Michael Becker of the Riverside Press-Enterprise has an interesting take on Schmidt’s comeback. The template is Frank Tanana:

Many have tried, but few pitchers have reinvented themselves quite like former Angel Frank Tanana.

Faced with a labrum and shoulder injury six seasons into his major league career, Tanana went from having a 100 mph fastball to relying on finesse and a big, looping curveball – and still enjoyed a successful 21-year career in the big leagues.

If Jason Schmidt can stick with the Dodgers as their No. 5 starter, Tanana will be the prototype.

The days of Schmidt being one of the league’s premier power pitchers is over. But you can make a good living in this league — and help your team win — with guile, mental toughness and pinpoint location with a moving fastball that tops out in the upper 80s. Schmidt, who will be a free agent next year, has two months to prove he can do it.

Follow Jim Lakely, the Dodgers Examiner, on Twitter.

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