Stults eyes a long-term situation

Stults eyes a long-term situation

LOS ANGELES -- There are 20 pitchers on the Dodgers' Major League roster. Only one has thrown shutouts in each of the last two seasons.

It isn't Clayton Kershaw. It isn't Chad Billingsley. It isn't Hiroki Kuroda.

It also isn't James McDonald, Scott Elbert, Josh Lindblom, Charlie Haeger, Ramon Troncoso or Carlos Monasterios, the six pitchers general manager Ned Colletti originally listed as contenders for the fifth starter spot next year.

Give up? Well, Eric Stults hasn't.

That's right, the trivia answer is the 30-year-old left-hander. Remember him? Most Dodgers have their likeness on giant billboards ringing Dodger Stadium. Stults ought to have his on a milk carton.

He all but disappeared midway through 2009, even though he had a winning record (4-3) and that shutout, a four-hit masterpiece against the Giants on May 9 pitching in place of the injured Kuroda. The Dodgers were 7-3 in his 10 starts. He went 3-1 with a 2.55 ERA in four Dodger Stadium starts and 4-1 against the NL West.

But he sprained his thumb in Florida on May 15 and tried pitching through the pain. He made two starts after the injury, his ERA jumped a full run and he was placed on the disabled list at the end of May. When he was healthy, he was optioned to Triple-A instead of returned to the starting rotation.

He made only one other appearance for the Dodgers, called up for an Aug. 9 start against Atlanta. He allowed three runs in five innings of an 8-2 loss and was sent down two days later, never to be seen by Dodgers fans again, unless they attended an Albuquerque Isotopes game. He didn't even get a September callup.

But Stults is participating this week in the Dodgers pitching minicamp at Camelback Ranch-Glendale in Arizona, preparing for what he terms the most important Spring Training of his career. He helped out on the family farm in Indiana during the autumn harvest and has been working on his curveball and new cut fastball in workouts at the college where he starred, Bethel.

"I'm out of options and something has to give, so I'm excited about this spring because a decision has to be made," he said.

There have been rumors that a Japanese club has contacted the Dodgers about purchasing Stults' contract, but the Dodgers haven't pursued that route and neither has Stults.

"I've heard from Japan in years past and I've said if I felt I had exhausted all my big league opportunities, I'd be open to that," he said. "I still feel I have value to a big league team."

Club officials use buzzwords such as "inconsistency" to explain why the organization seemed to bury the pitcher last season. Stults said his pitching tailed off at the end of the Triple-A season and he wasn't surprised he didn't get a callup.

Stults said he was told by Colletti that the club wants him to be more aggressive in his approach to batters. Stults concedes that, lacking overpowering stuff, he tends to nibble. In addition to the cut fastball he picked up at the end of last season, he has been working via telephone with Dana Sinclair, the Canadian-based sports psychologist the Dodgers have on retainer.

"I think some of my inconsistency is that I get too fine and lose my aggressiveness at times," he said. "So, a little bit, it's a mental issue. Physically, it's all there."

Stults also concedes that his 2009 season was impacted by the cancer death of his mother just before the start of Spring Training.

"Mentally, I don't think I was there for the baseball part," he said. "It was hard to focus and I think that's one of the reasons I had such a bad spring. It wasn't until the final week of camp that I realized life goes on. Baseball is my livelihood and I can't let it affect me. OK, she's not here, now I still need to focus and do the best I can and that got me going."

And when it seemed he was going best, he sprained that thumb.

"As an athlete, you don't want to use injury as an excuse, but it came to where the results were not good enough," he said. "I wanted to keep pitching, but I wasn't doing the team or myself any good."

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.