SAN FRANCISCO -- Nathan Eovaldi passed up college for baseball, but that doesn't mean he's not a serious student.
"The best thing about him is that he continually wants to learn," Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said about Eovaldi before his start Monday night against the Giants in San Francisco.
"He prepares and works extremely hard and has a good idea of what he wants to accomplish. His demeanor, you never see him get flustered for a young guy. He keeps attacking," Honeycutt continued. "Clayton (Kershaw) came through our system and we've asked the other young guys to basically use him as an example, try to emulate the way he goes about his business. That's what I like about Nate. He wants to grasp stuff like a sponge. Some guys want to do it their way."
Eovaldi has done everything this year but win, through no fault of his own. He went 0-3 in his first five starts this season, the victim of virtually no offensive support. In those five outings, the Dodgers scored three runs for him combined while wasting his 2.35 ERA.
He's the player other clubs want when the Dodgers talk trade, and the one prospect that is virtually untouchable.
After making an eye-opening impression during a 10-game callup last summer, Eovaldi opened this season at Double-A Chattanooga, blocked from a big-league job by front-office decisions, not his on-field performance.
Rubby De La Rosa blew out his elbow at age 22, 10 starts into his Major League career last year, and is shelved until midseason after Tommy John surgery. His injury diminished the starting depth and gave the club pause about counting on a 22-year-old Eovaldi coming into this season.
Meanwhile, Hiroki Kuroda wanted the kind of salary ($12 million) a bankrupt team couldn't afford as it slashed $30 million from the payroll. Therefore, general manager Ned Colletti took what Kuroda wanted and bought twice the arms in Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano.
So Harang and Capuano joined Kershaw, Chad Billingsley and Ted Lilly to lock up the rotation, blocking Eovaldi's path to the Major Leagues. Without the pressure of competing for the fifth starter slot, Eovaldi came to camp with virtually no chance of winning a Major League starting job and just pitched.
Fast forward to late May, when Lilly went on the disabled list with shoulder inflammation and Eovaldi stepped in.
"In my mind, I was trying to pitch for a job in the Spring anyway, even though I knew the chances were slim," said Eovaldi. "I feel like it's the same situation now. I've got to continue to do well, and that doesn't bother me either. You're always pitching to keep a job. There's always somebody coming after your spot."
"He's been better this year with his off-speed pitches," said Honeycutt. "The difference from last year, his curveball is a better pitch. At the end of last season and in Spring Training, that's what we asked him to work on. Last year he was fastball, slider. His change-up now is also good at times and at times devastating."
The rapid ascent of the right-hander is another of the success stories from Double-A Chattanooga, where pitching coach Chuck Crim is developing guru status after sending the Dodgers Javy Guerra, Rubby De La Rosa, Josh Lindblom and Eovaldi.
"At the end of the spring of 2010, I got seven or eight of our prospects together and told them they had the chance to be big-league pitchers, but they had to continue working for it," said Colletti. "I challenged them. He and De La Rosa really came. His fastball command is what separates him from a lot of young pitchers. With most, that's the last to come. He's got great poise, composure, he's ultra competitive and has a great work ethic."
The Alvin, Tex., right-hander was taken by the Dodgers in the 11th round of the 2008 draft because his Tommy John surgery in high school scared off other clubs. The Dodgers gave him $250,000 to sign instead of taking a scholarship offer to Texas A&M.
"I signed because, with my Tommy John experience, I wanted the experience of pitching professional baseball rather than go to college, where if it happened again, I wanted to be able to say I played pro ball," said Eovaldi. "I wasn't concerned with the bonus as long as they were going to pay for my schooling."
He pitched only 10 innings at Rookie Level the year he signed. Then Eovaldi spent the 2009 season splitting time between starting and relieving at Single-A Great Lakes and regressed in 2010 at Single-A Inland Empire, hampered by a strained oblique muscle.
He decided his pitch repertoire needed a tweak, so he shelved his curveball during instructional league and learned the proper way to throw a slider, which put him on the fast track to the Dodgers rotation. Now he throws both breaking balls.
"Now I throw the slider from the top and I have a good feeling for it," he said. "It's made all the difference this year. I'm a power pitcher and the slider is more of a power pitch. Hitters could see the curveball coming and adjust. I have a lot more confidence with the slider, but I've also brought the curveball back."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.