Stults getting first look for LA's fifth spot

Stults getting first look for LA's fifth spot

PHOENIX -- No one knows if Eric Stults will come out of Spring Training as the Dodgers' fifth starter, but he apparently has gone into it as the fifth starter.

When manager Joe Torre announced the rotation for the first round of exhibition games, Stults was included with the expected names of Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Hiroki Kuroda and Vicente Padilla. Stults also will start Tuesday's "B" game against the White Sox.

Stults heads a group of fifth-starter candidates that includes Charlie Haeger, James McDonald, Scott Elbert, Russ Ortiz, Ramon Ortiz and Carlos Monasterios. Stults said he assumes he's getting the first look mainly because he is out of Minor League options.

"I'm sure that plays into it, because they've got to make a decision on me," the 30-year-old left-hander said. "They want to see what they have."

In Stults, they have the only pitcher on the club that has a Major League shutout in each of the past two seasons. But they also have one who has lacked the consistency -- and at times the confidence -- to turn those flashes of brilliance into a regular spot in the rotation.

"Getting a start early is good for me, because usually I'd get one or two starts and that's it," he said. "This is a step in the right direction. In my mind, I'm throwing the ball well. I started working out this winter a little earlier than before just so I'd know I would be game-ready at the start of spring."

But is he mentally ready?

Stults said he was told by general manager Ned 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.

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"You can't change these things in one night, but she's given me exercises to practice on my confidence," Stults said. "I fill out a booklet with little reminders, things you forget about and you can go back to them. You remind yourself you're good enough, you're strong enough to pitch at this level. Sometimes, I take too much away from a bad outing. It's the mental side and I really need to find a middle ground. I've pitched good games in the Major Leagues and that's not a fluke."

Stults' problems last year started with the death of his mother just before Spring Training, and 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 National League 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.

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 think I can help a Major League club," Stults said. "Now I have to prove it."

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