The Nationals waited 4 1/2 months for Cade Cavalli to arrive from Triple-A and finally provide a much-needed big arm to a rotation that has struggled all year long.
Now that the hard-throwing right-hander is on his way to D.C. to make his highly anticipated major league debut, here’s the irony: The Nats rotation is currently in the middle of its best stretch of the season.
During their just-completed, six-game road trip to San Diego and Seattle, Nationals starters more than held their own against a couple of playoff contenders. They collectively posted a 2.79 ERA, holding opponents to nine total runs across 29 innings. Go back over their last 14 games, and that ERA is still a respectable 3.91 (nearly two runs better than the group’s worst-in-the-majors 5.89 mark for the entire season).
There’s been so much improvement, the Nats could afford to demote Cory Abbott (who allowed two runs over six innings in his most recent start), first to the bullpen and then to Triple-A following Wednesday’s 3-1 win over the Mariners. And they might also end up moving Paolo Espino to the bullpen after he starts Saturday, no matter the result, because they’ll have five other starters with Cavalli joining the mix.
Combine that kind of competent work from the rotation with the continued strong performance of the bullpen (2.02 ERA since Aug. 13) and you get the best sustained period of pitching the Nationals have had all year.
“They’ve been pitching really well,” manager Davey Martinez said Wednesday. “This whole road trip, they were outstanding. From starters to the relievers, they pitched really well.”
So, naturally, now’s the time to call up Cavalli.
As they insisted all along, the Nationals weren’t going to promote Cavalli based on the performance or needs of the big league club. They were only going to do it once they were convinced he was ready developmentally for the jump. And the way he had been pitching for Rochester (1.47 ERA over his last seven starts) more than suggested he was ready.
“It’s definitely hard not having him up here, wanting to see him compete up here,” Martinez said in announcing the plan for Cavalli to make his debut. “But then again, you have to think about longevity and the future for him, as well as for us. I think (general manager Mike Rizzo), myself, the whole organization, did a great job of just letting him get his feet wet, let him continue to build and learn how to compete. He’s done all those things, so he’s going to get an opportunity Friday.”
There were some other calculated reasons to make the move right now. The Nationals open a six-game homestand against the Reds and Athletics, owners of the fifth- and second-worst records in baseball, respectively. Yes, they’re still big league hitters, and there are no guarantees. But if the Nats were looking to give Cavalli a soft launch into the majors, this was as soft as it was going to get.
The Nationals as a whole would be wise to make the most of this homestand as they try to win a few games against some teams that fall into their same category as fellow rebuilders. Because the schedule after this gets a whole lot tougher.
Beginning Sept. 2 in New York, the Nats will play 25 of their final 31 games against National League East foes, against whom they’re a dismal 9-42 this season. Three of those teams (the Braves, Mets and Phillies) are all in the thick of the pennant race, and the Marlins have dominated them to date in 2022, winning 12 of 13 matchups.
The six out-of-division games that await the Nationals in September also come against contenders: four games against the Cardinals in St. Louis, two games against the surprising Orioles in D.C.
So the challenge will be mighty down the stretch of a season that is likely to see the Nationals flirt with 110 losses. And the challenge will be mighty for Cavalli, who won’t be able to avoid the Mets, Braves and Phillies before season’s end.
It’s a challenge the Nationals believe their top pitching prospect is ready to face. They can only hope he – and the rest of an improved rotation – is up to the task.