Cavalli struggles to get a grip in erratic debut (updated)

They watched Cade Cavalli take the mound at 7:05 p.m. on a muggy August evening in the nation’s capital with the kind of anticipation that only comes when a highly rated pitching prospect makes his major league debut.

And when he departed 93 minutes later, all anyone in attendance at Nationals Park could do was feel some mixed combination of emotions.

Clearly, there were things to like about Cavalli’s debut, most notably the fact he struck out six of the first 16 Reds batters he faced. And clearly, there were things to be concerned about regarding the 4 1/3-inning start, namely the seven runs that were charged to him as he struggled mightily to command his repertoire while he sweated buckets on the mound.

It will be some time before we can look back at this 7-3 loss to Cincinnati and say definitively whether it presaged what was to come for Cavalli, or whether it was an insignificant blip to begin a standout career. Suffice it to say, there weren’t a whole lot of conclusions to draw from this, except to note the 24-year-old right-hander obviously has the stuff to get big league hitters out … but only when he commands it well.

Over the course of his 99-pitch debut, Cavalli threw just 57 strikes. Some of his misses were close, with all credit going to the Reds for not chasing after them. But a good number of them didn’t come anywhere close to the strike zone, especially the three errant curveballs that plunked opposing right-handed hitters.

"I've got to execute more," he said. "It comes down to that: You've got to execute pitches, and I didn't do that tonight. I didn't put my team in position to win a ballgame. I've got to be better."

What became noticeable right from the start was Cavalli’s struggle to get a good grip on the baseball. The Oklahoma native sweated right through his cap and jersey on this humid, 87-degree Friday evening, and he wound up rubbing dirt from the mound on his hand after nearly every pitch.

"I've got to be better with that," he said. "I've got to get to the dirt. I'll learn from that. There's no excuses. It was humid, but there's another pitcher pitching with it, too. I've just got to be better."

Sure enough, seemingly unaffected by the conditions was Mike Minor, the Reds’ journeyman left-hander who allowed only two runs over seven innings for only his second quality start in 15 outings this year. Even if Cavalli had pitched well, his odds of coming away with the first win by a National in his major league debut since Stephen Strasburg in 2010 would’ve been minimal.

A crowd of 31,256 applauded as the 2020 first-round pick threw a 97 mph fastball to Jake Fraley to begin his career, then cheered with more enthusiasm when he got No. 3 batter Kyle Farmer to whiff at a 3-2 curveball for his first career strikeout a few minutes later.

"To be honest, I thought I was going to be a little more nervous," he said. "And I got out there and I felt very comfy. I've known some of these guys; I was in camp with them. It was good seeing some familiar faces, and it was good getting my legs under me, and we'll move on from now."

Cavalli looked to be on the verge of getting out of the top of the first when he got cleanup hitter Donovan Solano to hit a soft grounder up the middle. Rookie shortstop CJ Abrams made a nice play to get to the ball, but his running throw to first was wide, and Luke Voit couldn’t scoop it, allowing the night’s first run to score on an error charged to Abrams. Cavalli would be forced to throw 10 more pitches before the inning was over, one of those resulting in an RBI double off the wall by TJ Friedl.

"A couple plays we should've made behind him," manager Davey Martinez said. "We didn't."

A string of three straight hits (including back-to-back doubles by Farmer and Solano) in the top of the third brought home two more runs and left the Nats in a 4-0 hole.

Cavalli bounced back with a 10-pitch top of the fourth, his lone 1-2-3 inning, but then things fell apart in the fifth with a walk, an infield single, a potential 4-6-3 double play that only saw one out recorded because Luis García’s flip to second was wide and didn’t give Abrams a chance to make a clean turn, and then the last of the rookie’s three hit batters in the game.

Martinez made the walk to the mound, asked for the ball and patted his young starter on the back as he departed with the bases loaded. The subsequent three-run double surrendered by Erasmo Ramirez meant Cavalli would officially be charged with seven earned runs. It’s not far-fetched to suggest that number could’ve been only two or three with a better relief performance and a couple of plays made behind him in the field.

"He never brought it up," Martinez said. "He never mentioned it. He went back and got to that next hitter, which was really nice to see."

No matter the final pitching line, there were positives to pull from Cavalli’s debut. His fastball averaged 96 mph and topped out at 98 mph. He induced six swings-and-misses off his mid-80s curveball, plus two more off his high-80s changeup.

"I think he pitched well, despite those last few runs that came in," catcher Keibert Ruiz said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "He was competing the whole time and stayed in the game. Being his first big league start, he was doing what we expected and making his pitches and competing. I think we could've done a little better if we were a little more in sync with, I guess, a better gameplan. But I think he did very well."

There is something in there for the Nationals to work with, reason to be optimistic about what is still to come in his next start (likely Thursday against the Athletics) and over the season’s final month as he adjusts to life as a big league pitcher.

Even if his major league debut left something to be desired.

"I said the same thing about Josiah (Gray) when he first came up: You can't really judge a kid's first outing," Martinez said. "I know, regardless of what they tell you, the nerves are there. He wants to impress. He wants to show he belongs here.

"Baby steps. But I thought the stuff was really good."

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