WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – It was a rare day – and probably the last of this spring – when you saw two Nationals starting pitchers appear in the same game.
Luckily for Nats fans, it was two-thirds of the young Big Three they’re hoping leads this rotation for years to come.
Because of Sunday’s split-squad games and Monday’s off-day, Josiah Gray's and Cade Cavalli’s next scheduled times to pitch a game both landed today, in what would end up as a 9-6 loss to the Cardinals in front of 3,260 fans. They both had the same plan: Complete two innings and throw between 35 and 40 pitches, with Gray starting the game and Cavalli following out of the bullpen.
They both completed their objectives, in similar yet somehow different ways.
Gray started the game with a three-pitch strikeout of Brendan Donovan. He then gave up back-to-back singles before getting a popup and groundout to finish the frame on 12 pitches, nine strikes.
“I thought it was good,” Gray said. “I threw a lot of strikes, ahead in the count most of the time, faced some good hitters. Didn't throw any changeups, which I want to do next time. But for today, I thought it was really good, really positive. Threw every pitch for a strike. So definitely bottle this one up and take it to the next one.”
He moved even more quickly in the second, recording three outs around one single on 10 pitches. He finished the afternoon with 22 pitches, 16 strikes, in two innings.
“Honestly, just throwing a lot of strikes,” he said of his focus today. “Trying to keep the cutter in the strike zone, trying to keep everything in the strike zone. Keep the elevated four-seamer. Just throw the slider like I know I can throw it. Throw the curveball like I wanted to. … Just throwing overall strikes and just seeing what my stuff does to these good hitters and going from there.”
Cavalli entered in the top of the third, coming out of the Nats dugout as if he were the starter, instead of coming from the bullpen where he warmed up.
The former first-round pick started exactly like Gray did, with a three-pitch strikeout of Donovan. But he got hit around a bit more than his predecessor.
Facing the Cardinals’ top prospect, Jordan Walker, Cavalli served up a towering home run that landed on the concourse beyond the grassy hill in center field here at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. The longball was an example of Walker’s strength and an area where Cavalli needs to still improve.
“There was a mistake in there that I paid for,” Cavalli said of the homer to Walker, who finished the day 4-for-4 with two homers, a double and a single with three runs scored and three RBIs. “I made the mistake and, I mean, that ball should have been hit out of the yard, and it was. I'm gonna look back on and just try to not make that mistake again. That's it. … I was trying to go up and in. Just make him feel a little bit uncomfortable. And I missed practically middle-middle. So it was a bad mistake, and bad things happen when that occurs.”
Cavalli would record another strikeout and give up a double before his first inning ended. And then he had a much more efficient second frame. After issuing a leadoff walk, he struck out the next three batters in order to end his second spring appearance in two innings on 37 pitches.
“I thought it was really good,” Cavalli said of his outing overall. “A lot to look back on and I think there was a lot of positives. My goal coming in, I want to apply pressure to the hitters. I felt like I did that well. Land secondary stuff consistently, and just apply pressure and work quick, throw strikes. I felt like that's what I did today.”
“I think that they're actually learning,” manager Davey Martinez said of his two young starters. “They're understanding how, strike one, the 1-1 counts, when you win those counts, you have a really good chance of getting hitters out consistently. And that's something that they're working on.”
Members of the Nationals bullpen also could not contain Walker, or other bats in the Cardinals lineup, for that matter.
Walker hit his double in the fifth and Nolan Gorman immediately followed with a two-run shot against Alex Colomé, who again struggled with the pitch clock and was called for two violations: one while warming up before the inning even began and the second during Walker’s at-bat.
“We gotta talk to him about the timing of it,” Martinez said of Colomé. “He does work a little slower because he has this thing going on, but you have to understand what the rules are, which we're trying to explain to him. Then he's got to get on the mound and start working a little quicker.”
Chad Kuhl entered in the eighth, issued a leadoff walk and surrendered another moon shot to Walker to give the Cardinals a 5-4 lead. Then after a single, he gave up a two-run shot to Paul DeJong for a 7-4 Cards lead.
Matt Adams, trying to make the roster as the backup first baseman, launched his first home run of spring training in the eighth inning, a two-run shot to make it a one-run game.
But Jordan Weems gave up a solo homer and an RBI double in the ninth to push the Cardinals' lead back to three runs.
Wily Peralta and Hobie Harris each pitched a scoreless inning out of the ‘pen, with Harris striking out the side in the top of the eighth.
The Nationals started this afternoon’s scoring in the bottom of the second. With two runners in scoring position, Jake Alu fought off a pitch from Cardinals lefty starter Connor Thomas and dropped it right over second baseman Gorman into shallow right field to score the first run. Victor Robles then bunted hard up the first base line to score the next for an early 2-0 lead.
Then after a Joey Meneses single in the bottom of the seventh, Dominic Smith launched his first home run as a National on the first pitch of his at-bat to give the Nats a brief 4-3 lead.
“Love it,” Martinez said of the two homers from the two sluggers. “Dom was very quick to the ball against a lefty. And Matt Adams crushed that ball, he really did. He's still got it in him. We saw that last year. That's why he's here. When he's on time, he hits the ball really, really hard. I can say that about everybody, but Dom, too. Dom's just gotta be on time and understand he doesn't have to lift the ball. He's got enough power to just stay through the ball. It was a really, really nice swing.”
* Catcher Israel Pineda was hit by a pitch in the eighth inning as a batter. It looked like the ball was going toward his head, but he got out of the way in time and blocked it with his hand. He's getting an X-ray tomorrow, per Martinez.
If he misses any extended time, it’s a big blow to the Nationals’ catching depth behind Keibert Ruiz and Riley Adams.
“He's one of the kids we look at just in case,” Martinez said. “If something happens to Riley or Keibert, he'd be the next guy. So hopefully, it's nothing serious, but we're gonna start looking at other options.”