By Jon Weisman
Grant Dayton is a 28-year-old rookie who had a 9.26 for Triple-A Oklahoma City last summer.
Since then, something wicked this way came.
Making his Major League debut July 22, Dayton has a 2.05 ERA, 0.76 WHIP and 13.3 strikeouts per nine innings for Los Angeles, putting him on everyone’s shortlist for the postseason roster. It’s not exactly something one would have easily predicted 12 months ago.
“I don’t know what happened to me last year, to be honest,” Dayton said during the Dodgers’ last homestand. “I was having a great year, and then I got traded. And then I lost feel for all my pitches. It was definitely mental, but I have no idea why it happened.
“Looking back on it, I don’t know if I’d be here if it didn’t happen.”
Acquired from Miami for former first-round pick Chris Reed during the 2015 All-Star Break, Dayton came into the Dodger organization with a 2.83 ERA, 0.86 WHIP and 35 strikeouts in 35 innings for Triple-A New Orleans.
But in his first 8 2/3 innings with Oklahoma City, he allowed 12 runs and 18 baserunners. A week later, he was sent down to Double-A Tulsa.
“I felt like the Marlins didn’t want me,” Dayton said, “and then I come over to the Dodgers, that was great — but I got off to a really bad start. So, it was tough, for sure, (but) I guess I didn’t look into the future too much and say ‘I’m never going to make it’ or ‘I’m definitely going to make it.’ I just tried to take it every day at a time.”
Dayton shot down any idea that he was overthinking matters after the trade.
“Actually, I think I may be an underthinker,” he said, “because if you asked me who I faced last night, I can’t tell you. If you ask me what happened two days ago – I don’t know. I trust our catchers completely. That might be a downfall of mine, is that I don’t think for myself on the mound.”
Nor was there an issue with the transition from the only club he had ever known to the Dodgers.
“The organization’s definitely welcoming to new guys — as they should be, because they’re always getting new guys,” Dayton said with a laugh.
Starting anew in 2016, Dayton began the year with Tulsa — and began putting himself back on the map. In 15 2/3 innings, he had a jaw-dropping 16.1 strikeout-walk ratio, with a 0.70 WHIP and 2.30 ERA, earning a ticket back to Oklahoma City, where he fanned 63 in 36 1/3 innings (15.6 K/9, 0.82 WHIP, 2.48 ERA).
Dayton struck out four batters in a game eight different times in Triple-A this year, breathing fire this year in more ways than one.
“I guess I was content, before I hit the most adversity that I’ve faced,” Dayton said. “I knew – at least I thought — that I shouldn’t be (in Double-A), and that got me to a level that I decided to just really compete and really just throw as hard as I could and really try to be the best that I could. I thought that I was doing that before, but I just found a whole other level.”
Dayton’s first callup to the Majors was a one-game deal in which he was only expected to pitch in a blowout. Instead, he found himself throwing shutout ball in the 11th and 12th innings of what would ultimately become a 16-inning loss July 22 at St. Louis.
“They reassured me that I’m here for a reason and to just keep doing what I was doing,” he said. “So, I took everything that I learned in the minor leagues this year and tried to maintain that, and I think I was somewhat able to.”
That helped him weather the occasional squall, such as a go-ahead home run at Dodger Stadium by Phillies shortstop Freddy Galvis on August 10 that helped Philadelphia avoid a three-game sweep. A week later, he would allow homers in back-to-back games.
“I didn’t want to tell anybody,” Dayton recalled. “I didn’t want to say, ‘I feel messed up.’ For whatever reason, maybe a little nerves, maybe not being in my normal environment, I just didn’t feel right. But it came around, and I kept trusting that everything that I had done before. … I didn’t feel right until probably late August.”
Since August 20, the day he allowed his third homer, Dayton has pitched 15 1/3 innings and allowed 13 batters to reach base while striking out 24. There has been only one home run in that time, opponents are slugging .218, his ERA is 1.17 and he has stranded all six inherited runners.
Dayton is the rare MLB southpaw who can be counted on to face multiple batters. Of his 25 appearances, 17 have been for at least one inning and seven for more than an inning.
Though he has been death on left-handed hitters, who are 6 for 43 with two walks and 18 strikeouts against him, righties have done little better (8 for 51, four walks, 21 strikeouts).
This level of performance could be invaluable for the Dodgers going forward.
“It’s wild — I never would have thought my first callup would be right into it, into a pennant race,” he said. “This team’s been through so much adversity this year — the front office has done a really good job in getting guys here to fill in the spots, where we thought the veterans would be healthy and able. We’ve got a lot of rookies here, that have been able to step up and do jobs. I think that the team has been really welcoming to all the rookies and accepting of our roles, which is great, because we’re trying to win.”