Rubby De La Rosa is rock solid

HOUSTON -- It was the last thing I expected to see. And of all the people who were in Minute Maid Park on Tuesday night, both in and out of uniform, I can't imagine many of them expected it, either.

Twenty-two-year-old rookies, especially when they have just been called up from Double-A, aren't supposed to pitch this way. Twenty-two-year-old rookies are supposed to spend their first day or two just drinking in the major league lifestyle, trying to find some way to calm their nerves and looking scared when they actually get into a game.

Rubby De La Rosa simply trotted in from the bullpen and pitched. And furiously chewed on his gum. And mowed down Houston Astros hitters as if they were Southern Leaguers. And if his spot in the batting order hadn't come up in the top of the ninth, we would have gotten to see him do it again, and probably record his first major league save in his first major league appearance because, and trust me when I say this, nobody was going to hit him on this night.

De La Rosa, whose contract the Dodgers had officially purchased just before game time but who had been told Monday night that he was heading to the big leagues, wasn't the only contributor to the Dodgers' victory, 5-4 over the Astros before 28,713. He wasn't really even the biggest contributor. But he did provide the game with its seminal moment.

You see, after watching De La Rosa's perfect bottom of the eighth against the heart of the Astros' lineup -- a performance that included a quick pace, strikeouts of Hunter Pence and Brett Wallace, a weak grounder to short by Carlos Lee, and 13 pitches (eight of them for strikes) -- you got the feeling that for all the negativity surrounding the Dodgers these days, their long-range future might not be so hopeless after all.

We had seen this before, of course. We saw it in Scottsdale, Ariz., on March 18, when De La Rosa pitched four hitless innings against what for the most part was the World Series champion San Francisco Giants' everyday lineup. We saw it again at Dodger Stadium on March 30, when he blanked the Seattle Mariners' projected starting lineup on two hits over 5 2/3 innings.

But those were spring training games. This was the big time.

Not that De La Rosa, whom the Dodgers originally signed as an 18-year-old from the Dominican Republic, really noticed the difference.

"A lot of Latin kids get the chance to play winter ball and play on clubs back home with major league talent," Dodgers bullpen coach Ken Howell said. "When they're in winter ball, they come to realize that they're good enough to get major league hitters out, and then they bring that confidence with them when they come here. I think that makes a difference. The crowd noise and all those things don't really affect him. He was able to go out there and maintain his composure the whole time."

Certainly, the evening provided a wider glimpse into the Dodgers' future. Jerry Sands, another rookie who was called up well ahead of schedule, hit his second career homer and first grand slam off J.A. Happ in the third inning, and the Dodgers wound up needing all four of those runs.

Javy Guerra, who like De La Rosa was called up straight from Chattanooga without the benefit of a stop in Triple-A, pitched a perfect ninth to record his first big league save, capping three perfect innings by the much-maligned, injury-depleted Dodgers bullpen that began with veteran and former All-Star closer Mike MacDougal in the seventh.

But perhaps the most telling sign with De La Rosa wasn't what did show up in the box score as much as what didn't: If the Dodgers hadn't threatened offensively in the top of the ninth, causing the ninth spot in the order to come up and Mattingly to use a pinch hitter, Mattingly would have allowed De La Rosa to pitch the bottom of the ninth, with a one-run lead, in his big league debut.

"I was probably going to let him go back out," Mattingly said. "We saw it in spring training. He just really never showed any fear of anything. If I had his stuff, I wouldn't have any fear of anything, either."

What the Dodgers (22-28) might have to figure out at some point, though, is what to do if De La Rosa continues to pitch like this. He wouldn't be here if the Dodgers didn't have four relievers on the disabled list. At least one of those four, Blake Hawksworth, is expected back by the end of the week, and the other three figure to return at some point.

Given that, and given De La Rosa's long-term projection is as a major league starter, conventional wisdom would suggest he will have to go back at some point to clear a roster spot. But debuts like the one De La Rosa turned in have a way of shattering conventional wisdom, especially if they are carried over into the next few appearances.

However long his initial stint in the majors turns out to be, De La Rosa already seems to have won half the battle. Asked after the game whether he was nervous at all, he said no, that he never is nervous when he takes the mound, that he just attacks the zone and throws strikes. He will struggle at some point, as all major leaguers do, and we will learn more about him when he does. But what we learned about him in his debut was as telling as anything.

"When you see his age and [experience], you don't think much about him," Mattingly said before the game. "But when you see the stuff, he is a major league pitcher."

De La Rosa apparently agrees. And that is what really makes him special.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.