An elevated pitch count that reduced an anticipated two-inning start to one did nothing to dampen Dodgers right-hander Jimmy Nelson’s spring debut Thursday night.
For Nelson, a 31-year-old right-hander who has been limited by shoulder, elbow and lower-back injuries to 22 big league innings since 2017, a return to the mound for a competitive game for the first time since Sept. 29, 2019, was both gratifying and exhilarating.
“Coming into camp, being healthy, feeling the best I’ve felt since 2017 is fun,” said Nelson, who gave up one unearned run, one hit and struck out one in a 7-0 exhibition loss to the Chicago Cubs at Camelback Ranch.
“It’s fun to be out there again, to be around the guys in the clubhouse, to be on the field. When you’re not grinding through injuries and pain, you can actually enjoy the game. It’s been a long time, so I’m just trying to enjoy it every day.”
Nelson displayed a lively fastball that sat between 94 and 96 mph and touched 97 mph. He gave up a one-out single to Nico Hoerner, who took second on a wild pitch, stole third and scored on an error. Nelson then got Ildemaro Vargas to ground out and stuck out David Bote with a sharp breaking ball.
“This is one of those steppingstones,” Nelson said. “It’s a decent starting place. You’re always going to have things to work on but I’m thankful to come out healthy, to be in a good place. I feel confident I can build from here.”
The 6-foot-6, 250-pound Nelson had a 12-6 record and 3.49 ERA for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2017 when he tore the rotator cuff and labrum in his pitching shoulder while diving back to first base on a pick-off attempt in a Sept. 8 game against the Cubs in Wrigley Field.
Nelson had surgery that sidelined him for all of 2018 and the first two months of 2019. He returned that June and pitched four times before an elbow injury sidelined him for all of July and August.
The Dodgers, known for their low-risk, potentially high-reward investments, signed Nelson to a one-year, $1.25-million deal before 2020, thinking he could provide some rotation depth or long relief help.
Nelson was slowed in the first spring training by hip and lower back injuries. When baseball resumed in July after the pandemic-induced shutdown, Nelson underwent back surgery that sidelined him for the season.
“Even after his first bullpen last year, the day after, he didn’t feel right,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “From that point on he was fighting an uphill battle with his body all year.”
While the Dodgers went on an October run that culminated in their World Series victory over the Tampa Bay Rays, Nelson completed his rehabilitation from lumbar surgery.
Though the Dodgers had one of baseball’s deepest rotations even before signing 2020 National League Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer in February, Nelson, feeling an obligation to the team that took a chance on him before the 2020 season, signed a minor league deal with the Dodgers last Dec. 11.
“Absolutely,” Nelson said, when asked if it was important to return to the Dodgers. “That was a huge factor in my decision. I really want to come back and earn a championship. These guys gave me an opportunity last year and it didn’t work out, but I felt this was the right place to be to help me stay healthy and develop me.”
It’s probably not the right place for Nelson to win a rotation spot in camp. He’s currently No. 8 on the team’s depth chart, behind Bauer, Walker Buehler, Clayton Kershaw, David Price, Julio Urias, Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin.
But Nelson will make every effort to stick with the Dodgers, which is why he pushed the opt-out clause in his deal into April, after the start of the season. Most opt-outs are scheduled for the end of spring training, so players on minor league deals who aren’t expected to make the club can explore other options.
“No matter what the [rotation] is, I have to take care of my business,” Nelson said. “It’s one of those peripheral things in baseball that can get into your head, but I’m happy we have this staff; it’s great to have those guys as resources and be around them and kind of be in their back pocket and learn from them.
“What makes this place great is everyone is on the same page, rowing the boat in the same direction, at the same speed. The medical staff and coaches work together really well, and it makes the development much easier, much more comfortable.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.