Injuries in 'pen could create chances for Clay, McGowin

Back when the Nationals broke spring training and headed north, the bullpen looked like a definite strength. The addition of closer Brad Hand set the Nats up for a lockdown back end, and guys like Wander Suero and Kyle Finnegan backed up the high-leverage relievers with the potential to pitch multiple innings in middle relief.

Now, barely two weeks into the season, the bullpen is growing shakier by the day. Right-hander Will Harris hit the injured list with what was thought to be a blood clot, but later diagnosed as right hand inflammation. Lefty Luis Avilán has been diagnosed with a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow, was placed on the injured list and is debating whether to rehab the injury or undergo Tommy John ligament-replacement surgery. Yesterday, Suero grabbed his left side while pitching the ninth inning and had to leave the game. He underwent an MRI, but could also be headed for the IL.

While injuries are a part of baseball, they also create opportunity. And while the bullpen has been used heavily while the Nats rotation rounds into shape, the injuries sustained by Avilán and possibly Suero create a path for other pitchers to contribute and impress.

"It's always concerning when you've gotta use your bullpen so much, absolutely," manager Davey Martinez said via Zoom after Saturday's 6-2 win over the Diamondbacks. "These guys, they understand the game and they know they've gotta pitch. That's why they're here. ... They understand that any given moment, that phone's gonna ring and their name's gonna be called upon, so they gotta be ready."

So who benefits most from the absences of Avilán and possibly Suero?

Avilán was supposed to be the second lefty out of the 'pen. With Hand the only other southpaw - and mostly targeted for ninth-inning duties - Avilán carved out a niche for himself after a strong spring showing: a 1.93 ERA and 10 strikeouts in eight outings (including a start) covering 9 1/3 innings.

When the season started, and Hand was placed on the COVID-19-related IL during the outbreak that swept through the team, that opened a door for Sam Clay, a 27-year-old signed in the offseason to a major league contract after seven seasons in the Twins system and only 14 games at Triple-A.

Clay-Throws-Red-ST-Sidebar.jpgIn five games this season, Clay has impressed the Nationals, despite recording a 6.75 ERA over 5 1/3 innings. Though he yielded a solo home run to Eduardo Escobar in yesterday's victory, Clay has put together a 1.13 WHIP and a .200 average against, with five strikeouts to two walks. With Avilán out for the foreseeable future, Clay could assume his role as the second lefty out of the bullpen.

"I like Sam Clay a lot. I liked him when we got him, when we signed him," Martinez said. "I saw a bunch of video. He's a guy that typically throws a lot of ground balls, but he's got some swing and miss in there as well. But I like him and we're gonna ease our way with him. He's good on lefties, but he's also good on righties. I like what I've seen so far."

When Avilán was placed on the IL on Friday, the Nats recalled righty Kyle McGowin from the alternate training site in Fredericksburg, Va., to give the bullpen a fresh arm. Now, with Suero a possibility to hit the injured list, McGowin's role could be expanded. McGowin got the call when Suero exited on Saturday and got out of a two-on, none-out jam unscathed.

"I kind of like what Kyle's been doing," Martinez said before Saturday's game. "He's matured a lot. He's pitched well for us, so he's going to get an opportunity to pitch for us until we decide to do something else. But I like him. Plus, he's another guy that gives us multiple innings if we need it."

McGowin, 29, is already in his second stint with the Nationals this season after being optioned to Triple-A Rochester at the end of spring training. He's followed up an impressive spring - a 2-0 record, 2.70 ERA and 0.931 WHIP in eight outings, including a start, over 9 2/3 innings - by throwing 3 1/3 hitless innings in the majors in 2021.

"You never want anybody to get hurt, ever. So that's tough for me," Martinez said Saturday morning. "When you get news like that, it hurts because you feel for the player. But you know, we've got to keep pushing on. This is why when the season starts, I've said this before, it takes a multitude of players to win a championship and we try to keep all those guys that are in the alternate site ready to go because you never know what's going to happen.

"We feel like we've got guys down there that are building up that can help us. For me, you don't want these guys here 'til later on in the season, but they're there. So when somebody goes down, it's a conversation that we have to have to see who's going to fit and what we need. But we've got some good options down there, we really do. "

As the Nationals have discovered over the years, bullpen success is fickle. All it takes is one or two injuries to wreck an offseason's worth of tinkering and additions. It's not as easy as just elevating someone into a new role. When a closer goes down, the eighth-inning setup man might get save chances, but one injury can create two holes. Who fills in for the setup guy who is pressed into closing duties?

One move can have a ripple effect on multiple players. It's on the remaining relievers to take the baton and run their leg of the race without incident.

"We've got to keep moving on. It's part of the game," Martinez said. "The players understand that. It's tough for me because, like I said, I never want somebody to get hurt. But I've got to think about the rest of the guys here and try to win ballgames."

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