Kuhl slides into rotation and makes solid case

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – It would’ve been easy for Chad Kuhl to take the mound this afternoon at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, knowing what has changed in the last week, and feel like he needed to do something more than usual.

With Cade Cavalli now headed for season-ending Tommy John surgery, the Nationals have designated Kuhl as the top candidate to take the final spot in their Opening Day rotation.

What could’ve been considered by some a make-or-break start against the Tigers was viewed by Kuhl as simply the next step in his preparation for the season, no matter where he will be pitching two weeks from now.

“To be honest, I never really put too much stock in spring games or outings,” he said. “We had talked, and for me it’s just trying to do what I can do to focus on getting better, focusing on the things I can control. I talked with (general manager Mike) Rizzo in the offseason about the opportunity and felt like I was on a good path, no matter what happened box-score-wise. I was able to focus on myself.”

Whether the results of today’s start would’ve made a difference or not, Kuhl made sure not to do anything that might jeopardize his chances of making the club. He tossed five innings of one-run ball during the Nats’ 2-1 win, allowing back-to-back hits in the top of the first but then settling into a groove and finishing with six consecutive outs.

The 30-year-old right-hander did all this on a mere 68 pitches, displaying the kind of efficient success the Nationals rarely got from the majors’ worst rotation in 2022.

“He’s here because we love his makeup,” manager Davey Martinez said. “He’s a competitor. He’s going to give you everything he’s got every time he goes out there. I liked what I saw today.”

Kuhl has considerable big league experience, having started 111 games for the Pirates and Rockies, posting a 31-41 record and 4.74 ERA along the way. He’s also experienced the ups and downs of life as a major league pitcher, missing all of the 2019 season following Tommy John surgery, then bouncing back strong last year in Colorado before things got sidetracked during the second half of the season.

Owner of a 4-2 record and 3.17 ERA through his first 10 starts, Kuhl went just 2-9 with a 7.37 ERA over his final 17 outings. He spent time on the injured list with a hip flexor strain and battled inconsistent mechanics while trying to find rare success in the thin air of Denver.

“I was moving in a way that wasn’t conducive to what I had been doing in the first half,” he said. “I felt like I was driving the ball down, I was getting a bunch of ground balls, I was kind of on the attack. And then the second half, I was falling behind a lot of guys, moving more east-west, balls were flatter, I was getting hit. I just feel like I didn’t do a good job of getting back on track.”

Kuhl feels much better about the state of things this spring. He was intrigued by the Nationals’ offer to sign him to a minor league deal this winter, with the opportunity to make the rotation and be close to his family in Delaware too good to pass up.

He’s friends with Trevor Williams, who also came up with the Pirates and signed a two-year, $13 million contract with the Nats this winter, and he believes he can be a good influence on young pitchers who are still learning their way in this camp.

There’s still no guarantee of a spot on the team charter that heads north in seven days. But Kuhl has done just about everything he can to make his case for a seat.

Whether it happens or not, he can be pleased with the position he’s put himself in after last summer’s struggles.

“You try not to look at results, but at the way guys are swinging,” he said. “You look at swings and misses, you look at the elimination of big misses out of the zone, east-west misses, way-too-high misses. It’s just a lot better, and I’m on the right track.”

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