Avoiding blowup inning, Herz impresses Nationals in second start

There was a moment in the top of the second inning Sunday when it felt like DJ Herz was about to crumble.

The rookie left-hander, in only his second career start, had cruised through the top of the first but then during a four-batter span the following inning had given up two runs after issuing two walks, allowing two singles and uncorking two wild pitches, the last of which came after back-to-back, high-and-tight fastballs to Jarred Kelenic that left the Braves left fielder contemplating whether he needed to charge the mound.

And then Herz, who had been known in the minors to let a game get away from him from time to time, battled back and struck out Kelenic on his next pitch before getting Ozzie Albies to fly out on the pitch after that. The inning was over, and Herz had thrown 33 pitches, but only the two runs had crossed the plate.

“I’m proud of him,” Nationals manager Davey Martinez said. “Because a situation like that, and a good team like that, he was able to get composed and throw strikes when he needed to, get out of a big jam there and keep us in the ballgame.”

Herz wasn’t credited with his first big league win at the end of the day. Because he didn’t complete the requisite five innings, he couldn’t get the W, which instead went to reliever Jacob Barnes at the official scorer’s discretion. But he impressed nonetheless during his 4 1/3 innings, the majority of which featured plenty of outs and few baserunners.

“Really impressive,” catcher Keibert Ruiz said. “We had a tough second inning, but he came back and gave us the chance to win the game.”

Those two runs in the top of the second were the only runs Herz allowed during an 8-5 victory. He posted a zero in the first, then more zeroes in the third and fourth before Barnes ensured another one in the fifth by escaping a two-on, one-out jam he inherited.

It was another positive step for the 23-year-old, who was summoned from Triple-A Rochester when Trevor Williams landed on the injured list and seems to have earned the opportunity keep pitching up here a while longer.

Herz credited the assistance he received along the way Sunday from Ruiz and pitching strategist Sean Doolittle, the two of them guiding him through the hectic second inning and getting him back on track just in time.

“I just needed to reset,” he said. “Talking with Doolittle, it was like: ‘It happened. Let it go. Move onto the next. Go back out there. These guys are going to put runs up.’ And sure enough, it happened. It just sped up a little bit, and we had to slow it down. I’m glad we went back out there and competed and gave our guys a chance to win.”

Ruiz did his part with some adjustments to his pitch calling as the game played out. Recognizing Herz’s cutter wasn’t working well, he ditched that pitch and began calling for more sliders, which helped him get ahead in the count and get quicker outs over his final two-plus innings.

“I really thought Keibert did a great job with him,” Martinez said. “He started mixing pitches up, getting him back in the zone. He was off quite a bit there for a little while, and we thought: ‘Oh, boy.’ But Keibert got him back settled down a little bit and got a big out for us.”

Herz’s first two starts haven’t been masterpieces by any stretch of the imagination. He has allowed 16 batters to reach base in only 8 1/3 innings. He’s walking 5.4 batters per nine innings.

But he has shown some grit to get through these two games without letting anything spiral out of control on him. It’s something he said he’s learned along the way, thanks in part to work with the Nationals’ mental skills coaches, who have helped him slow things down when it feels like the game is speeding up too much.

Barring any unexpected changes, Herz will be back on the mound at Nationals Park on Friday to face the Marlins, who could provide a bit less of a challenge than the Mets and Braves did. With Josiah Gray – who pitched three innings during a rehab start Sunday for Single-A Fredericksburg – perhaps two weeks away from returning from the IL, Herz will have to convince club officials he deserves to stay in the major league rotation.

He hopes what he’s shown so far in two starts gives the decision makers a better sense of who he is.

“I pitch with a lot of heart,” he said. “I want to do good for these guys. I want to give my team the best chance to win.”

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