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Injuries Have Become A Pattern for Nats' Pitching Staff

Since 2019, Dave Martinez’s motto has been “Go 1–0 today.”

The events of this week – and subsequent news this weekend – make a case for the alternative. The Nationals split their most recent four-game series with the Diamondbacks, but that’s of relatively minimal importance right now.

On Saturday, left-handed reliever Luis Avilan was confirmed to have suffered a UCL tear, as a result of back-to-back extended outings on Wednesday and Thursday. Then on Sunday, right-handers Stephen Strasburg (shoulder) and Wander Suero (oblique) were also placed on the 10-day IL.

The Nationals promoted Paolo Espino, who made Strasburg’s previously-scheduled Sunday start, and relievers Kyle McGowin and Ryne Harper to fill those three voids. All three have Major League experience, but none of them are difference makers, nor do they come with much apparent upside.

The Strasburg Situation

I noted in my recap from earlier this week that Strasburg had a rough outing in his last start Tuesday, and that the Nationals took exception to camera shots of the dugout that the Cardinals had access to. However, the team glossed over the fact that Strasburg wasn’t himself physically in that start.

By all accounts, Strasburg felt fine after the game and in his scheduled bullpen session later in the week. He didn’t feel any discomfort until the following day, and although he and the Nats tried to push through it, by Sunday morning it was clear that a roster move was necessary.

Reportedly, Strasburg is only experiencing “some inflammation” and is without a timetable for a return.

Regardless – whether it’s a short or long-term absence – the Nats need to add a starter; Paolo Espino won’t be sufficient. So what are their options?

Jon Lester tossed 49 pitches over three innings in a simulated game at the Alternate Training Site in Fredericksburg on Thursday. Davey has stated that he wants to ramp Lester up to five or six-inning appearances before promoting the lefty, but his hand might be forced.

Washington has also kept in touch with a familiar face: Anibal Sanchez. He threw in a “showcase” setting last Saturday and reportedly looked like himself – although he also suffered a cut on his middle finger, which was estimated to require a 7–10 day recovery period.

Aside from Espino, Austin Voth is a logical Band-Aid, although he’s been throwing out of the bullpen and isn’t currently “stretched” as a starter. But even if they went that route, what would they really be getting? While Voth had a successful 2019, his 2020 numbers (2–5 with a 6.34 ERA in 11 starts) were ugly, and his extended appearances in Spring Training weren’t much better.

The most intriguing options in the minor leagues are right-handers Cade Cavalli and Jackson Rutledge – whom I have discussed a couple of times previously for my personal blog – but it’s presumably too soon to promote them to the big stage. Rutledge hasn’t pitched above Low-A in the regular season, and Cavalli (a first-round selection in 2020) has yet to throw in a regular season game at any level as a pro.

We all knew starting depth would matter at some point, but likely not to the degree it has so far. Erick Fedde has already been forced to start thrice, and Espino had to be purchased from outside the 40-man roster to even show up in D.C. on Sunday. Sure, Lester is on his way back, but the starting staff will continue to be tested.

Oh, What a Relief it is (Not)

The bullpen has become equally tricky. The top trio (Brad Hand, Daniel Hudson and Tanner Rainey) remains intact. But the Nats’ next two relief arms (Suero and Will Harris) are now on the IL, and their primary left-handed specialist might not pitch again this season.

Davey has had trouble managing his bullpen from the moment he stepped foot in Washington. The World Series championship numbs the pain, but even that was earned by using his starters in relief – which may have actually done some harm to them since.

When the oblique flare-up happened, Suero had pitched in four of the last five days for the Nats – which has been a recurring problem for him over the last three seasons, as illustrated by his sparing usage late in 2019. To the right is a graphic from Todd Dybas to show just how bad it had been for Suero so far this year, prior to entering Saturday’s game.

It’s perfectly in line with what he did in 2019 – when he led the league in appearances until the tail end of the season – and it’s frankly malpractice. Sean Doolittle was worn down by the same degree of overuse, and countless relievers have trotted onto the mound at unsustainably-high rates over shorter stretches – including Hudson, a two-time Tommy John surgery patient, who appeared in Thursday and Friday’s games and tossed in the bullpen in two separate spurts on Saturday.

Washington could certainly stand to add a quality bullpen arm sometime soon, but the subpar performance of the unit won’t end until Davey revises his approach. Once relievers are used at more standard rates, their production will improve. Then, and only then, an evaluation can be made.

The Arizona Series

Of course, games did happen over the last four days, so it would be wrong to not discuss them. The Nats were 11–6 losers on Thursday, reeled off consecutive wins (1–0 and 6–2) to follow, and fell 5–2 in the series finale.

Max Scherzer tossed seven innings of shutout ball on Friday, striking out 10 batters, and Fedde had one of the best starts of his career – one run and nine strikeouts over five innings – on Saturday.

On the other hand, Patrick Corbin’s Thursday outing was a night to forget. In what was his second consecutive uneasy start since coming off the IL, Corbin lasted only two innings and gave up 10 runs, raising a bevvy of questions regarding his true value – which is particularly suboptimal, given the state of the rotation.

In terms of strictly production, the bullpen had a solid series. In 13 innings prior to Sunday, the unit only allowed two runs (solo home runs by Hudson and Sam Clay on Thursday and Saturday, respectively). They gave up three more runs in 4.2 innings of relief of Espino, which is less ideal. Still, while there might be bones to pick regarding who was used when and how frequently, in the moment, it mostly worked.

On offense, the series was a mixed bag – somewhat inline with Saturday’s story on the subject. Thursday was a good day for the bats, even though they came up short. Trea Turner, Juan Soto and Josh Harrison each had multi-hit games, with Harrison and Starlin Castro each taking a ball out of the yard. Friday was much the opposite, but a walk-off moonshot from Kyle Schwarber saved the day. The offense returned – to the tune of six runs on 14 hits – on Saturday, and then disappeared (aside from Turner) again on Sunday.

For various reasons in different situations, there wasn’t much margin for error for the Nats. Without some of their most important pitchers, that may become increasingly true in the near future.

Looking Ahead

On deck, the Nationals have another date with the Cardinals. After taking two out of three games from them in St. Louis earlier this week, they’ll face off in Washington this time around. Here’s the upcoming slate of games.

  • Monday: Jack Flaherty vs. Joe Ross, 7:05 p.m. ET, MASN/106.7 FM
  • Tuesday: Adam Wainwright vs. Patrick Corbin, 7:05 p.m. ET, MASN/106.7 FM
  • Wednesday: Carlos Martinez vs. Max Scherzer, 4:05 p.m. ET, MASN/106.7 FM

The Nationals will be using their most optimal starting pitchers, at least of the ones available to them. The same could arguably be said by the Cardinals, but they aren’t pitching that way. Wainwright and Martinez, in particular, each have ERAs over 7.00.

Ross pitched six shutout innings against the Cardinals, allowing only four hits and striking out five batters. Corbin will be looking to right the ship on Tuesday, while Scherzer will aim to toss his second consecutive strong game. 

Flaherty and Wainwright threw against the Nats on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively, and Ross threw on Wednesday in St. Louis, as well. The Nats were held to one run over five innings off Flaherty, but scored four runs on seven hits in five frames off Wainwright.

Martinez – St. Louis’ Wednesday starter – was once among the best starting pitchers in the league, but a series of injuries has sent his career into somewhat of a tailspin, not dissimilar from Ross in years past. After spending 2019 in the bullpen, he’s given up as many runs as innings pitched in his last eight starts. On Friday, he allowed six runs in five innings, and also hit two Phillies.

Once again, St. Louis is throwing out three right-handed starting pitchers. Expect to see Josh Bell instead of Ryan Zimmerman (although he homered off Wainwright on Wednesday), and Schwarber higher in the lineup. Yan Gomes caught Ross’ last start and is always behind the mound for Corbin, whereas Alex Avila is Scherzer’s catcher. It’ll likely stay that way in this series, although Gomes hasn’t had a day off since Friday.

Not much has changed for the Cardinals, who were shut out by Aaron Nola and Philadelphia on Sunday, since the Nats last saw them. Tommy Edman, Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado and Yadier Molina (their best hitter so far this season) remain the top half of their lineup, followed by Matt Carpenter (against righties), Paul DeJong and Dylan Carlson. The rest fluctuates based on matchups.

It’s not unreasonable to think Washington should win two out of three games again, but baseball is a game of call and response, not assumptions. One thing is for sure: The Nationals need these wins, before getting to the question marks further down their rotation later in the week.

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Tuesday, 18 May 2021
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