Adon makes final case to make opening day rotation

JUPITER, Fla. - Joan Adon was 2 1/2 years old when Albert Pujols made his major league debut for the Cardinals in April 2001. The Dominican-born right-hander has spent his entire life watching Pujols mash baseballs in St. Louis, Anaheim and every other town in the National and American leagues.

So when Adon, now 23, stood on the mound at Roger Dean Stadium today and saw Pujols, now 42, standing in the batter’s box awaiting his pitch, the young Nationals hurler couldn’t help but appreciate the significance of the moment.

“It was very emotional and exciting,” he said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. “When I was a little kid, I saw him on TV playing. And he’s obviously a great player. So now getting a chance to face him, that’s incredible.”

Star-struck or not by a Cardinals lineup that included Pujols, Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado and Yadier Molina, Adon had work to do this afternoon. With opening day a mere 72 hours away, the rookie is still in big league camp, getting a chance to start a big league game against a lineup loaded with big league hitters.

Adon’s performance today - three runs, four hits, one walk, five strikeouts over four innings - wasn’t the kind of eye-opening performance that would normally lock up a spot in the Nationals’ season-opening rotation. Given his lack of experience - only four starts higher than Single-A - the safe play would have him joining top prospect Cade Cavalli with Triple-A Rochester to begin the season.

But the Nats may not play it safe in this case. Manager Davey Martinez made the argument for Adon’s inclusion in the opening day rotation following today’s game, a 4-3 loss to St. Louis.

“I like him, I really do,” Martinez said. “I know he’s part of our process of being young, but I think he’s come a long way. If I had to make a decision myself, I think he’d start with us. But I’m going to go back and talk to (general manager Mike Rizzo). We definitely need starters.”

The Nats rotation is probably going to be in a constant state of motion this year. If Adon doesn’t make it, the initial five figures to be Patrick Corbin, Josiah Gray, Aníbal Sánchez, Erick Fedde and Josh Rogers. But that collection could be overhauled several times over as the next six months play out. Cavalli is waiting in the wings. Stephen Strasburg and Joe Ross hope to be healthy before long and re-establishing their places in the rotation. Aaron Sanchez is building his arm up and could be ready within a few weeks.

And then there’s Adon, who doesn’t show up atop any prospect rankings but already has an eye-opening, big league start on his career resume.

Summoned from the minors to start Game 162 last fall, Adon wound up striking out nine members of a Red Sox lineup playing for its postseason life. Despite his lack of upper-level minor league experience, Adon looked very comfortable on a major league mound that October afternoon. And the performance gave him plenty of confidence coming into this spring.

“Absolutely,” he said. “Absolutely, yes.”

Adon showed off some of his impressive stuff today against the Cardinals. His fastball registered 93-96 mph, with tailing movement in on right-handed hitters’ hands. His slider induced six swings-and-misses.

But he also was prone to stretches of ineffectiveness. St. Louis plated a second-inning run on back-to-back singles by Arenado and Pujols, with a wild pitch in between putting Arenado in scoring position. Goldschmidt then clobbered a 93-mph fastball in the bottom of the third for a two-run homer during an inning that also featured Adon’s lone walk, a hit batter and another wild pitch.

“It’s a great experience for me,” he said of facing the Cardinals’ A lineup. “I’m a young guy, and these are veteran hitters back there. I learned from it, and it helps motivate me to get better.”

Perhaps the most impressive thing Adon did today was a critical adjustment between the third and fourth innings. After watching his young starter miss up-and-in a lot with his fastball, pitching coach Jim Hickey mentioned to him he was “cutting off” his pitches. In other words, he wasn’t finishing with full extension, leading to that excessive tailing action on his fastball.

When Adon returned for his fourth and final inning, he corrected the issue and promptly retired the side on nine pitches.

“When you start cutting the ball off, it starts sailing away, and he has no control,” Martinez said. “He needs to stay on top of the baseball and finish through. Hickey saw it, talked to him about it after the inning. And he went back out the next inning. I wanted him to finish off on a positive, so we got him out of there.”

Now it’s decision time. Has Adon shown enough to convince club officials to bring him to D.C. after Tuesday’s exhibition finale? That conversation is about to take place.

All Adon can do is wait and ponder what it would mean to make the opening day roster.

“It would be very exciting,” he said. “Obviously, I only had one start last year, so to start the season with the team would be very exciting.”

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