LOS ANGELES ― The newest member of the Dodgers’ bullpen is a veteran of eight major league games. Gus Varland has already had a strange – and occasionally painful – career.
The 26-year-old right-hander, who took Joe Kelly’s spot on the active roster on Tuesday, is the rare player who came up through the Dodgers’ minor league system, then pitched against the Dodgers before ever pitching a game for them.
Varland was not on the Dodgers’ radar for a major league call-up in 2022. He moved from the Double-A Tulsa rotation to the bullpen in May and proceeded to dominate the Texas League. After making the switch, he lowered his walk rate, raised his strikeout rate, and shaved nearly four full runs off his ERA.
The Milwaukee Brewers had Varland on their radar, selecting him in the Rule 5 draft last December. Even Varland was skeptical of his chances to stick on Milwaukee’s major-league roster, but he succeeded on the strength of eight spring training relief appearances – the last four of which were scoreless.
Varland continued to impress with five straight scoreless appearances to begin the regular season.
“What made me change to have the most success, especially last year in Double-A when I went from a starter to reliever, were the mechanical changes I made in my delivery,” Varland said. “Being more consistent, more powerful, and a different mentality of just attacking the zone and not being scared of any hitter.”
Varland said the changes came at the suggestion of Tulsa pitching coach Ryan Dennick and bullpen coach Luis Vasquez.
Unfortunately, nothing could prepare Varland for the moment that interrupted the trajectory of his season – and his career. On April 15 in San Diego, the Padres’ Manny Machado hit a 105-mph line drive back to the mound. Varland’s momentum allowed him to spin out of the way as the ball raced toward his chest, but the ball glanced off his left (glove) hand, then his face, before careening away.
Varland spent the next 29 days recovering. During his rehab, a batted ball struck his other hand. His psychological recovery was more significant than his physical recovery.
“Just because I didn’t expect it at all,” Varland said. “It’s something you have to get past and move forward from. Physically it wasn’t that bad at all. I didn’t have a concussion.”
In his second game back, Varland faced 11 St. Louis Cardinals hitters and recorded two outs. He allowed six hits, including two home runs, and walked three. The Brewers designated him for assignment the next day.
Under the terms of the Rule 5 draft, Varland was offered back to the Dodgers. Assigned to Triple-A Oklahoma City, Varland went 2-1 with a 2.16 ERA in 30 games, averaging more than a strikeout per inning while walking only eight batters.
The Dodgers acquired Garland and Sheldon Neuse from the Oakland A’s in February 2021 for pitcher Adam Kolarek and outfielder Cody Thomas. More than two years (and eight major league games) later, Varland has a locker in Dodger Stadium.
“It’s been a wild year starting in December,” he said.
Oklahoma City Dodgers pitcher Ryan Pepiot was named the Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Week after taking a perfect game into the seventh inning of his start against Tacoma on Sunday.
It was a strong sign of recovery for Pepiot, who had been sidelined most of the season with an oblique injury. Although he now has six Triple-A starts under his belt, and enough arm strength to join the major league club, Pepiot’s next promotion is not imminent.
“For us, it’s expecting him to go out there and do it again,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “Right now guys (in the major league rotation) are throwing the baseball well.”
Pepiot, 25, went 3-0 with a 3.47 ERA in nine games with the Dodgers last season.
Injured right-handers Blake Treinen (shoulder) and Walker Buehler (elbow) threw a live session to teammates in Arizona on Monday, including rehabbing outfielder Jonny DeLuca (hamstring). … Shelby Miller (neck) is set to make his first minor league rehabilitation appearance with Triple-A Oklahoma City on Wednesday. The right-hander made three scoreless appearances in the Arizona Complex League, and will need 2-3 more games before he’s in line to return to the big leagues, Roberts said. … Pitcher Tyler Cyr (shoulder) also joined Triple-A Oklahoma City on a rehab assignment. … Outfielder Jake Marisnick (hamstring) was transferred to the 60-day injured list to make room for Varland on the 40-man roster. He is ineligible to return until at least mid-September.
Milwaukee (LHP Wade Miley, 6-2, 2.90 ERA) at Dodgers (LHP Clayton Kershaw, 10-4, 2.51 ERA), Wednesday, 7 p.m., SportsNet LA, 570 AM