He showed flashes as a rookie but then regressed last year.
Though the Dodgers were hopeful of a bounce back, few were anticipating production this consistent.
Of the Dodgers’ current starting rotation — one that includes a former All-Star and 20-game winner — it’s Tony Gonsolin who has arguably pitched the best over the first quarter of the season, leading the group in ERA, strikeout rate and walks plus hits per inning pitched (WHIP).
In the team’s 3-2 win against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Saturday, the right-hander displayed all the reasons why again.
He attacked with a fastball that this season has regained its life, after Gonsolin was dogged by a shoulder injury last year.
He mixed in his ever-improving curveball, a new trademark of his this early season.
He finished off at-bats with his slider and splitter, racking up seven strikeouts for the third straight game.
Most of all, he pitched with pace and efficiency, issuing no walks for the first time this season while completing his fourth six-inning outing and third such start in a row.
“It’s just going after and attacking guys,” Gonsolin said. “Having more confidence that my stuff is going to work.”
The Dodgers (32-14) didn’t see this version of Gonsolin much last year.
After the former ninth-round pick posted a 2.60 ERA and averaged just shy of five innings per start in his first two seasons, he struggled with consistency while nursing shoulder problems and unreliable command.
The sharpness of his stuff would vary with each start. His pitch count would balloon with walks and long at-bats. And though he managed a 3.23 ERA, he rarely worked deep into games, completing five innings in just four of 13 starts.
Lately, however, everything’s been different.
He’s generating fewer whiffs but allowing far less hard contact. He has steadily cut down his walks, issuing two or fewer in five of his last six appearances. And it has all resulted from a more aggressive mindset, with Gonsolin unafraid to fill up a strike zone he once only nibbled at.
“I think a lot of young pitchers, they start to be too fine,” manager Dave Roberts said. “But to be a front-line starter, you’ve still got to be able to give your team some length. He’s been able to do that for us.”
Saturday was the latest example.
After giving up two runs in the second inning on a pair of RBI triples, Gonsolin settled into a groove. He pitched a 1-2-3 third inning. He stranded a double in the fourth that deflected off first baseman Freddie Freeman.
Then, even with his pitch count at 79 after the fifth, he returned to the mound in the sixth to retire the heart of the Diamondbacks (23-25) lineup in order.
Combined with Mookie Betts’ 14th home run of the season to lead off the game, a two-run rally in the top of the fifth, four hits from Justin Turner and a scoreless three-inning effort from the bullpen — Daniel Hudson got the save because closer Craig Kimbrel wasn’t feeling well — it was enough to help the Dodgers to a third consecutive win.
“I thought today was just an all-around good performance,” Roberts said of Gonsolin. “It’s kind of commonplace now.”
Pitching deeper into games has been Gonsolin’s goal since the start of spring.
He worked on improving a once little-used curveball, throwing it both in the zone to get called strikes and in the dirt for put-away whiffs.
His slider and splitter have been dominant, too, yielding a combined .099 batting average entering Saturday.
He has better commanded his fastball, as well.
“He’s really understanding what his arsenal is and what makes him unique,” pitching coach Mark Prior said. “Where you can throw guys, how to get into counts, and then where to go to get out of some situations. And I think that’s what’s been a big plus for him this year.”
There’s also been a mentality change. Gonsolin talked with coaches and teammates, including Clayton Kershaw, about how to better navigate his starts. He has become more willing to attack hitters over the plate, throwing 50.9% of his pitches in the zone this year compared with 43.8% last year.
“I’m throwing strikes when I need to,” Gonsolin said. “Quality strikes, that is.”
And over the last month, he has put all the pieces together consistently — his surprise start to the season making him an unexpected rock in the rotation.
“[I’m] just having the confidence that I’ve earned that spot,” he said, “and trying to keep that.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.