Zac Gallen knew his task on Friday night would be no easy feat.
Facing the Los Angeles Dodgers, the top team in Major League Baseball, on the road is enough of a challenge already. For Gallen, making just his fifth career MLB start and matching up against arguably MLB’s best pitcher this season in Hyun-Jin Ryu, Friday night at Dodger Stadium also served as an early testing point in his career.
Would he fold under the pressure? Would he buckle against a hard-hitting lineup?
For 5 1/3 innings, despite picking up the loss in the Marlins’ 2-1 defeat, Gallen looked like he belonged.
Yes, Gallen ran into a couple jams. Yes, he left with the bases loaded and one out in the sixth inning, with two of runners eventually scoring the game’s deciding runs.
But the 23-year-old righty showed poise behind an announced crowd of 52,471 and in front of the most dangerous lineup he faced in his young career.
“I thought he attacked, got himself in good counts, stayed on the hunt,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. “That’s the kind of game that’s really good for him.”
Gallen’s final line on Friday: Three hits, two runs (one earned), four walks and five strikeouts on 95 pitches. He held the Dodgers hitless the first time through the order. He struck out All-Star Cody Bellinger twice. It would have been a third if not for a bad Ball 4 call on a full count in the second.
“I ran into some spots [against Bellinger] where I had to make pitches,” Gallen said, “so I was happy with the way it turned out.”
He got himself out of a jam in the second inning. After Bellinger walked — albeit on that called Ball 4 inside the strike zone — and A.J. Pollack on four pitches, Gallen needed nine pitches to retire the side and strand both runners. Corey Seager grounded out to third base on a changeup, Kike Hernandez popped out to Brian Anderson on a cutter after working a 3-0 count and Russel Martin hit a ground ball to Miguel Rojas to end the inning.
“I thought it was pretty good against if not the best, then one of the best offenses in baseball,” Gallen said. “We talked about last time the attention to detail. I think it’s even more heightened when you come into a place like this [when] you’re on the road and you play those guys.”
Gallen gave up just two more hits over the next three innings before unraveling in the sixth.
A leadoff single to Alex Verdugo and a four-pitch walk to Justin Turner prompted a mound meeting. Gallen quickly responded by striking out Bellinger — his second of the night after also getting him to whiff to lead off the fourth — before another walk to Pollock ended Gallen’s night and brought Jarlin Garcia to the mound. Verdugo scored on an RBI fielder’s choice. Turner became the go-ahead run on a Starlin Castro fielding error.
“I had success for five innings,” Gallen said.
The goal now is extending deeper into games. Gallen has made it through five innings in four of his five starts — he only lasted two innings on July 2 against the Washington Nationals due to a lengthy weather delay — but has yet to make it through the sixth.
Nevertheless, his pure numbers are solid for his first handful of starts. Gallen boasts a 3.63 ERA and 26 strikeouts to 14 walks in 22 1/3 innings.