Kuhl solid in final spring start, waits for what's next

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Chad Kuhl handed the ball to Davey Martinez with one out in the sixth tonight at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. The right-hander had just surrendered a leadoff homer and then recorded a flyball out to end his outing at 92 pitches, a solid-if-unspectacular outing against a good Cardinals lineup in the final week of spring training.

Kuhl walked back to the Nationals dugout and began thinking about his next start. The question now: Where and when will that start be?

“We’ve got to figure out what we’re going to do here, but he’s done a great job,” Martinez said. “We’re getting close to the season, and we’ve got to make some decisions. But so far, I like what I’ve seen out of him.”

Thrust into the Nats’ rotation plans after Cade Cavalli tore his elbow ligament last week and required Tommy John surgery, Kuhl seems to have done enough to have locked up the No. 5 starter’s job as the season begins.

The Nationals, though, aren’t ready to make any pronouncements about that. There’s still another 11 or 12 days to go until they’ll need a fifth starter, so that leaves them with some flexibility as they wind up camp.

Kuhl will need to pitch again before a potential April 4 or 5 start against the Rays in D.C. That could happen here in Florida after the club departs in a minor league game on a back field, because he’s still technically a non-roster invitee who isn’t on the 40-man roster yet.

If the Nationals go that route, they could carry a ninth reliever for a few days to begin the season, then add Kuhl to the roster once he’s needed and reduce their bullpen to eight.

That decision, if it hasn’t already been made, will need to be made in the next few days. Kuhl, for his part, took the mound tonight and did what he needed to do to keep himself in the driver’s seat.

The 30-year-old righty didn’t dazzle all that much. He fell behind in the count to a few too many hitters and wound up throwing only 52 of his 92 pitches for strikes. He didn’t enjoy one clean 1-2-3 inning.

But he also kept the damage to a minimum, pitching his way out of a couple of jams. The Cardinals’ lone runs off him came via two singles sandwiched around a stolen base in the third, then Alec Burleson’s homer to center on the first pitch of the sixth.

“Your biggest situations are going to come out of the stretch pretty much all year long,” Kuhl said of the jams he faced tonight. “You never really want people on base, but obviously it’s inevitable, it’s going to happen. To be able to bear down … it’s good to get that in-game experience right now in spring.”

The most notable area in need of improvement may be Kuhl’s attempt to slow down the running game. The Cardinals were very aggressive on the bases tonight, attempting three steals and converting two of them, with Keibert Ruiz catching Juniel Querecuto for a strike-em-out, throw-em-out double play off a curveball to end the third.

“We’ve got to talk to him about controlling the running game a little bit,” Martinez said, “but he was working on some things today.”

Kuhl, in his first camp with the Nationals, has come to appreciate the value of Ruiz’s arm.

“That’s a luxury,” he said. “I’ve been blessed in my career to have some really good catchers, and it continues here. Exciting to watch. It’s nice to know even if he’s calling breaking balls back there, he still has the confidence to throw them out. Definitely a luxury, and really nice to have.”

Kuhl and Ruiz have had a chance to work together a few times this spring. The way things are going, it seems like they’ll have more chances to work together as March shifts to April. Even if nobody’s officially saying it yet.

“I’m pretty confident in what I have and where I’m going to be,” Kuhl said. “I’m just ready to get the season going.”

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