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The Strike Zone

Zack's back: Greinke sparkles in post-brawl return against Nationals

(Reed Saxon/AP)Zack Greinke was solid in his return, tossing 5 1/3 innings and only giving up one run. (Reed Saxon/AP)

Pitching in the majors for the first time since sustaining a broken left collarbone in an April 11 brawl, Zack Greinke made a strong return for the Dodgers on Wednesday night. Facing a Nationals lineup that was without Bryce Harper or Jayson Werth due to minor injuries, Greinke threw 5 1/3 innings of one-run ball over 83 pitches, collected an RBI single, and left with a 2-1 lead. The Dodgers held on for a  3-1 victory to run their record to 17-22.

Greinke broke his collarbone when the Padres' Carlos Quentin charged the mound and body-checked him after being hit by a 3-2 pitch. Originally expected to be out eight weeks after undergoing surgery to implant a metal rod to stabilize his clavicle, he returned one day short of five weeks after the incident, having made just one 84-pitch rehab start at High-A Rancho Cucamonga five days earlier.

Against the Nationals, Greinke allowed five hits and didn't walk a batter. The lone run he allowed came via a solo homer by Adam LaRoche in the fourth inning. Had it not been for the 28 pitches he threw in that frame — 15 in the service of getting the final two outs via an Ian Desmond popup and a Danny Espinosa strikeout — he might have at least finished out the sixth. He didn't go above 15 pitches in any other inning.

On the other hand, Greinke's fastball velocity suggested he wasn't yet at full strength. He averaged just 91 mph on his four-seamer according to BrooksBaseball.net, 0.8 lower than the average in his two other starts with the Dodgers, and 2 mph below his average last year. Recall he missed 18 days of spring training due to elbow inflammation, which caused the Dodgers to push the highly anticipated debut of their new $147 million man back to the fourth game of the season April 6.

Because no timetable-beating goes unpunished for the Dodgers, they created a spot on their 25-man roster by placing Josh Beckett on the disabled list with a groin strain. The team has now used an MLB-high 10 starters this year, five of whom have hit the DL at some point: Beckett, Chad Billingsley, Chris Capuano, Stephen Fife and Ted Lilly. Capuano, Lilly and rookie Matt Magill covered Grienke's turns in his absence, but hardly covered themselves in glory. According to True Blue LA's Eric Stephen, in their five turns they yielded a 9.92 ERA with a 13/14 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 16 1/3 innings — just 3 1/3 innings per start.

Beckett's last start, in which he allowed four runs (two earned) in three innings before departing, marked the first time all season the team made it through the same five-starter cycle twice in a row. Given the cycle included six of the team's eight straight losses, perhaps it's for the best that it was broken up.

You can get a sense of the turnover in this graphic I whipped up, with each turn in the rotation defined by where it falls in relation to ace Clayton Kershaw's spot. Any starter repeating a turn in the same slot is in a light blue cell, any starter who's been pushed back at least one slot is in darker blue, and newcomers to the rotation are white cells.

dodgerrot

Thanks largely to the work of Kershaw and Ryu, the Dodger rotation ranks sixth in the league in ERA (3.69) and eighth in quality start rate (55 percent). Take those two away and the unit has a 5.25 ERA, eight quality starts out of 21 (37 percent). And an average of just five innings per start. For all the focus on the weakened offense, that underperformance is a big reason why the team entered Wednesday last in the NL West. If Greinke can pitch up to the caliber of his return showing, he'll certainly help.

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