WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - With three scheduled off-days in the first two weeks of the season, the Nationals will open with a four-man rotation and keep No. 5 starter Jeremy Hellickson in the bullpen as a long reliever.
The club could have stuck with a traditional, five-man rotation, but that would’ve left Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez getting some unnecessary extra days off in early April. By moving Hellickson to the bullpen for the short-term, the rest of the rotation will continue to pitch on normal rest.
An added benefit: Scherzer is now lined up to potentially start three of the Nationals’ first nine games: opening day against the Mets, then April 3 and April 8 against the Phillies (and Bryce Harper).
If things go as planned - and that’s always subject to change, Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin will start this week’s opening series against the Mets, with Sánchez starting Harper’s highly anticipated return to Nationals Park on April 2 and Scherzer pitching the following afternoon in the two-game series finale.
Strasburg, Corbin and Sánchez would then start the April 4-7 series at New York, with Scherzer and Strasburg starting the first two games of the April 8-10 series in Philadelphia before Hellickson rejoins the rotation for the series finale at Citizens Bank Park.
“In reality, to me, with all the days off he really only misses a start,” manager Davey Martinez said.
The decision to put Hellickson in the bullpen at the outset isn’t a reflection of his performance this spring. The veteran right-hander, who signed a $1.3 million contract shortly before the start of camp, allowed only two earned runs in 19 innings, striking out 19 while walking six.
“He’s had a really good spring training,” Martinez said. “His stuff is really good.”
Hellickson’s addition would give the Nationals at least eight relievers in their opening day bullpen. Sean Doolittle, Trevor Rosenthal, Tony Sipp, Matt Grace and Justin Miller all appear to be locks, with Kyle Barraclough and Wander Suero likely to join them (though both right-handers have options and could theoretically be sent to the minors). The Nats also are considering right-hander Austen Williams, who has dazzled this spring, retiring 22 of the 24 batters he has faced.
Update: We have completed four innings here in West Palm Beach, with the Nats and Astros tied at 3. Yan Gomes and Jake Noll drove in first-inning runs with base hits. Adam Eaton drove in the other run with a sacrifice fly in the top of the second after Matt Reynolds triped to center. Corbin has dialed up his fastball to 92-93 mph, but the lefty has given up some hits (eight in four innings, tobe exact). One of those was Jake Marisnick’s solo homer to left on an 0-2 pitche to lead off the bottom of the third. Meanwhile in Port St. Lucie, the other split-squad trails the Mets 8-4 in the seventh. Joe Ross went five innings, allowing four runs on seven hits. Matt Adams, one of the few big leaguers who made the road trip, homered.
Update II: It’s over in Port St. Lucie, where the Nats took an 8-4 loss. It’s still 3-3 here in West Palm Beach in the bottom of the seventh.
Update III: The Astros took a 5-3 lead in the bottom of the eighth when Abraham Toro doubled home the go-ahead runs off Henderson Alvarez III.
Final Update: Left-hander Kit Scheetz entered the game for the Astros in the ninth and retired the side in order. Houston wins, 5-3.