Detwiler gets his shot

Since the Nationals drafted Ross Detwiler with the sixth overall pick in 2007, they’ve had three looks at the left-hander in the major leagues. The first came in 2007, when then-GM Jim Bowden brought Detwiler to the majors - and put him on the 40-man roster - to pitch one inning in September, a relief appearance, precipitated by a handshake agreement with Detwiler’s agent, that doubled as a dog-and-pony show.

The second came early in 2009, earlier than the Nationals thought Detwiler would pitch in the majors after tinkering with his mechanics during all of 2008. In what was initially scheduled to be a spot start after a doubleheader put the Nationals’ pitching staff in a bind, Detwiler impressed the Nationals enough with realigned mechanics that he got to stay in the majors until the All-Star break, all without going through Triple-A. Detwiler got sent down at the break, struggling with his release point, but came back for an impressive September that put him high on the list of rotation candidates for this season, until hip surgery killed that possibility in spring training.

On Sunday, Detwiler gets his fourth shot at the majors, again in what looked at first like it would be only a spot start, a fill-in appearance against the Milwaukee Brewers while Luis Atilano rested a sore elbow. But after an MRI showed loose bone chips in Atilano’s elbow and the Nationals’ timeframe for needing a starter got longer, the opportunity just looks that much better for Detwiler.

And more than any of the first three, it comes with the sense that the 24-year-old might be ready to stick. He’s been impressive at Double-A Harrisburg, posting a 2.48 ERA in seven starts. At times, like in his seven shutout innings on Wednesday, he’s been dominant. Detwiler, who will be pitching on short rest on Sunday, will be limited to five innings, but he’ll get the chance to keep the spot as long as he’s pitching well.

That Detwiler won the race to the majors between all of the Nationals’ injured pitchers shouldn’t be overlooked. He’ll get a chance to establish himself in the rotation before Jordan Zimmermann is ready to return from Tommy John rehab, before Scott Olsen is back or Jason Marquis is healthy, before Atilano returns (if a cortisone shot is enough to get him ready to finish the season) and before Chien-Ming Wang or Yuniesky Maya, the two most intriguing, yet most abstract entries in the field, are given serious thought. He’ll be able to put the burden of proof on the other pitchers to take a spot away from him. Moreover, he’s got better stuff than either Craig Stammen or J.D. Martin. If the Nationals need to lift a starter, it might not be Detwiler.

For the Nationals, it also adds a left-hander back to a rotation that had become exclusively right-handed in recent weeks. Detwiler’s second start, which will come on an extra day’s rest with Monday’s off-day, will be against the Philadelphia Phillies and their lineup of tough lefties. Detwiler’s numbers against lefties and righties in 2009 were almost exactly similar, but he’ll at least present a different look from the rest of the staff.

If Detwiler, after three years of delivery tinkering, injuries and delayed timetables, is to make his mark in the Nationals’ rotation, it needs to happen now. The team is expecting a rush of pitching to come in the final months of the 2010 season, which means one of its five rotation spots will theoretically be as hard to come by as it ever has been. The former top pick has his shot now, as good a one as he’s going to get. It’s on him to make this one stick.