The injury looked so innocent in the moment, Tony Gonsolin’s teammates initially chuckled at his one wrong step.
After a round of fielding drills for Dodgers pitchers on a backfield at Camelback Ranch earlier this month, Gonsolin was slowly trotting away from the mound when his left foot suddenly gave way on the infield grass, twisting his ankle and knocking him off balance.
At first, a group of fellow pitchers standing nearby found humor in the sight, razzing their feline-loving teammate for failing to land on his feet.
Within a few minutes, however, the mood became more serious.
Gonsolin grabbed at his ankle in obvious pain. He walked gingerly to the dugout to be checked by a trainer. Then he hopped in a golf cart and was driven away.
The pitcher, it turned out, had suffered a sprained ankle, and it could be a while before he appeared in a game again.
Almost two weeks removed from the injury, manager Dave Roberts confirmed Friday that Gonsolin won’t be healthy in time for opening day.
“To say he’s gonna start the season,” Roberts said, “that’s not gonna happen.”
An exact timeline for Gonsolin’s return is unclear. If his recovery doesn’t speed up — which seems unlikely after Roberts cautioned multiple times it will be a “slow” process — the pitcher could be in danger of missing multiple starts to start the season.
“Long-term, I don’t think it’s gonna be an issue,” Roberts said. “But that speaks to how we’re gonna handle this thing on the front end.”
Consider it one of nine lives burned for the so-called “Catman” — a freaky, ill-timed, literal misstep that won’t derail his 2023 season, but is delaying his pursuit of “unfinished business,” as Roberts termed it, from last year.
While Gonsolin had a career regular season in 2022 — he went 16-1 with a 2.14 ERA to earn his first All-Star selection — he was one of many Dodgers who failed to perform in their abrupt postseason elimination.
After missing most of September because of a forearm injury, Gonsolin flopped in his lone outing against the San Diego Padres, getting only four outs in a Game 3 start the Dodgers were hoping would last four innings.
While Gonsolin gave up just one run, his early exit helped put the team behind the eight ball for the rest of that game, which ended in a loss, and the series, which ended with a stunning four-game defeat a night later.
The frustration lingered into the start of Gonsolin’s offseason, becoming the latest in a pattern of playoff disappointments for the four-year veteran.
“It sucked,” he said when asked about his finishing to the year following his first, and only, Cactus League starting this spring on March 3. “I feel like I did it back-to-back years in 2021 and ’22. “
Gonsolin turned the setbacks into motivation while crafting his personal goals in 2023.
“Go wall to wall,” Gonsolin declared. “Go from start to finish.”
The start, now, has been complicated.
While Gonsolin denied multiple requests from reporters in the last week to discuss his injury, Roberts said the 28-year-old’s discontent had been clear.
“You work all offseason to get to a certain point to come into camp, and then to have this setback early on, yeah, he’s frustrated,” Roberts said.
Asked where the randomness of Gonsolin’s ankle roll ranked among the injuries he’s seen in his career, Roberts acknowledged it was “up there.”
“It was something very, obviously, benign,” Roberts said. “A guy like Tony, to have something like this happen, to be up to this point costly, it’s very freakish.”
The challenge now for Gonsolin and the Dodgers will be making sure the pitcher stays primed for a strong return and, eventually, finishing to 2023, when he will once again be expected to serve as an anchor of the team’s starting rotation.
“Tony talked about finishing the race or finishing the season strong, that’s still in play,” Roberts said. “But I think, to make sure we nip this and don’t have it linger, is very important.”
Dodgers pitching coaches were trying to strike a different kind of balance prior to Gonsolin’s injury, keeping his focus narrowed on the day-to-day while looking for big-picture improvements to be made from last season.
“It’s all about just keeping everything in perspective,” assistant pitching coach Connor McGuinness said. “I think it’s frustrating for all of us, and frustrating for him of course, that he had the year he had, and then had a little hiccup there at the end. So I know it’s front of mind. … But we just don’t want him to think too much into the future. If he just takes it day by day, we know he’s going to be outstanding for us.”
After throwing two-plus scoreless innings in his Cactus League debut at the start of the month, Gonsolin felt he was making such strides.
“I had a better understanding of what I was preparing for,” he said. “Just kind of figuring out the routine, the day-to-day routine and being able to build my body up in a way to withstand the innings load.”
While that work is on hold, Gonsolin’s bigger goals for this season — steadily improving over the course of a full campaign, and pitching his best when it matters down the stretch — remain intact.
It’s an important step in his burgeoning career.
He’ll be hoping it goes smoother than the one that left him with the aching ankle that will delay the start of his season.
“As long as we stay on the same page with him, he should be good to go,” McGuinness said. “He’s an absolute beast. He’s going to be back out there soon.”
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.