Bullpen changes coming today after Freeman injured

The Nationals are expected to get one key veteran back in their bullpen today, but they may be losing their only effective left-hander for a prolonged stretch.

Sam Freeman, who had been a surprise revelation through the season's first three weeks, departed Wednesday night's 11-6 loss to the Mets after telling manager Davey Martinez and director of athletic training Paul Lessard he felt a "pop" in his elbow.

The Nationals have initially diagnosed Freeman with a flexor strain in his left forearm, but he'll get an MRI on Friday when the team returns from New York to Washington and club officials are legitimately concerned this is a more serious elbow injury for a pitcher who already had a serious elbow injury early in his career.

"At this point, I can't assume anything," Martinez said during his postgame Zoom call with reporters. "This is what we were told. He's going to get an MRI on Friday. We do know that in 2010, he had Tommy John. So for him, it's a level of concern."

Freeman faced four batters during Wednesday's game. Summoned to replace ineffective starter Aníbal Sánchez in the bottom of the third, he walked Luis Guillorme and then got Brandon Nimmo to ground out to end the inning. He returned for the bottom of the fourth and got J.D. Davis to ground out, but then threw one pitch to Jeff McNeil and immediately motioned to the dugout that something was wrong.

The conversation with Lessard didn't last long.

"He said he felt a pop in his elbow," Martinez said. "When he says that, he's coming out of the game. It's unfortunate. Super guy. Works his tail off. Hopefully it's just a strain, but we'll know more on Friday."

A non-roster invitee to spring training and then summer camp, Freeman pitched his way onto the opening day roster, then pitched his way into a prominent role. With Sean Doolittle struggling and Roenis Elías on the injured list with his own flexor strain, Freeman had become Martinez's only trusted left-handed reliever.

The 33-year-old didn't give up a run in any of his first six appearances. He took the mound Wednesday without having pitched in three days, so fatigue should not have been an issue.

During a nine-year career that includes 271 appearances with the Cardinals, Rangers, Brewers, Braves, Angels and Nationals, Freeman made only one stint on the injured list: He missed three weeks in 2018 with left shoulder inflammation.

But prior to making his major league debut for St. Louis, Freeman had Tommy John surgery, missing the entire 2010 season.

It seems a given the Nationals will place Freeman on the injured list today, and that will open a spot for Will Harris, who is ready to return after missing two weeks with a strained groin muscle. Harris threw 17 pitches to live hitters Tuesday and reported no issues, so the right-hander should be cleared to rejoin the bullpen for today's series finale at Citi Field.

Thumbnail image for Doolittle-Takes-Off-Cap-Upset-Red-Sidebar.jpgThat would leave the Nats with only one lefty in their bullpen, though, and that's Doolittle, who has been relegated to low-leverage situations while trying to fix his wayward mechanics and rediscover the fastball velocity he has lost since last fall.

If they feel it's important to have another left-hander immediately, the club could decide to promote 2017 first-round pick Seth Romero, who is with the team in New York as part of the five-man taxi squad created for just such an occasion.

Romero has precious little experience, having never pitched above low-Single-A Hagerstown. He missed last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. And his career has been marred by off-the-field disruptions that included being kicked off his team at the University of Houston and being sent home from his first spring training with the Nationals for violating organizational rules.

But Romero has a live arm and has impressed the coaching staff when given a chance to pitch in front of them during summer training and since the season began at the Nats' alternate training site in Fredericksburg.

"I'm going to talk to (general manager Mike Rizzo), probably after we're done here, and talk and see what the game plan is moving forward," Martinez said following Wednesday night's game. "I really think we've got to keep getting Doolittle right. And then we'll see what happens. I like the way Seth has been throwing the baseball. He threw the other day, and he threw really well. Maybe he does get an opportunity. But that's something I'm going to sit with Mike Rizzo about and see what we come up with."

Romero would need to be added to the 40-man roster, but the Nationals already have an opening after designating utility man Emilio Bonifácio for assignment last week. They would have to remove someone else from the active 28-man roster, though, whether another reliever, such as Ryne Harper (who struggled in Wednesday's loss), or a bench player, such as Wilmer Difo (who is out of options and would need to be exposed to waivers).

The Nationals did get more encouraging news about another key player who departed Wednesday's game with an injury: Victor Robles. The dynamic center fielder got hit by a pitch on his right hand in the top of the fifth, and though he remained in the game for one more inning he had to depart due to swelling in one of his knuckles.

Martinez said X-rays on Robles' hand came back negative. He's day-to-day, but it seems unlikely he'll be in the lineup for this afternoon's game.

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