Cavalli effective but laments one mistake in first start

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Ask Cade Cavalli what he liked about his start tonight against an Israel club prepping for the World Baseball Classic and the young Nationals right-hander sighs and has to think about it for a moment.

“I got some outs,” he said. “Kept it to just one run. Just tried to minimize damage whenever I put myself into that little jam.”

That little jam came in the top of the second, when the Israelis strung together three singles to bring home their lone run in three innings against Cavalli. His start, headlined by six strikeouts, was otherwise quite solid. But he couldn’t deem it a full-blown success because of that one sequence in the second that led to the run.

Cavalli at times overwhelmed a lineup composed mostly of minor leaguers. But he got into trouble when he allowed back-to-back, one-out singles in the second. He proceeded to strike out Ty Kelly with a 97-mph fastball, then had Noah Mendlinger down 0-2 with a chance to get out of the inning unscathed, only to surrender a two-out, RBI single to the No. 9 hitter to give Israel its first run en route to a 9-0 shutout victory.

“I wanted to elevate it, and I just left it middle,” Cavalli said of the fastball Mendlinger hit to right for the RBI knock. “I made the mistake and paid for it. Gotta get it up.”

This is where Cavalli is right now in his development. There’s no questioning his stuff, which made him a first-round pick in the 2020 draft and allowed him to rocket up the Nats’ farm system and make his major league debut last August. But he’s still perfecting his command of that stuff, and that remains a work in progress.

“This is something he’s going to learn,” manager Davey Martinez said. “But I love him, because he’s eager to learn and he’s eager to get better. You know what you’re going to get: He’s going to be aggressive, he’s going to attack the zone and that’s awesome.”

Cavalli has enjoyed a mostly successful trek up the organizational ladder, owner of a 3.51 ERA, 1.225 WHIP and 11.4 strikeouts per nine innings across 220 1/3 minor league innings. But it hasn’t been an entirely straight path to this point. He’s dealt with his share of struggles, whether within one individual start or across several of them in a row.

His ability to learn how to cope when things aren’t going right might be the final hurdle in his development.

“I feel like I’ve grown a lot in that area personally,” the 24-year-old said. “My approach to it is really just flush it and understand the only thing I can control is that next pitch. That’s it. The past, I can’t control. Once you can get that out of your head and flush, you can move on faster and just keep applying pressure to the hitters.”

So add tonight’s second inning to the list of growing moments for Cavalli. His fastball, which consistently registered 96-98 mph, was well-located most of the outing and accounted for three of his six strikeouts. But that 0-2 fastball to Mendlinger wasn’t where he wanted it, and now he’ll set out to prevent it from happening again.

“I’m going to take it into my bullpen this week,” he said. “I would like to throw it up there, right into their hands. I want to be able to execute that and feel it and get very consistent with that.”

Cavalli should have three more opportunities to work before Opening Day. After making a couple of relief appearances to begin his spring, he’s now slotted into the Nationals rotation, ready to build his arm up further from the 51 pitches he threw tonight and take his next step toward solidifying his place on this team.

“We’re going to have some growth moments with him, but I love the way he goes out and attacks,” Martinez said. “He understands the game. He understands what he needs to do.”

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