Nats pitchers working fast, throwing strikes and winning games

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – If Davey Martinez and Jim Hickey had only one message for pitchers entering spring training, it was as simple a message as they get: Throw strikes.

The Nationals issued 558 walks last season, fifth-most in the majors. They simply can’t afford to keep issuing free passes at that rate.

Three games into Grapefruit League play this spring, the trend has been reversed in dramatic fashion. Yes, it’s only three games, two of them played today alone. But the Nats have walked a total of only five batters in 26 innings, and none of them came during this afternoon’s 3-2 victory over the Astros at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches.

“These guys are coming in with 9-, 10-, 13-pitch innings,” Martinez said. “We’re pounding the strike zone. That’s something we want to instill in their heads. We told our catchers we’ve got to get strikes. They’ve been good. They’re throwing the ball well.”

Nine different pitchers took the mound here today, and all nine retreated to the dugout having forced Houston’s hitters to earn their way on base. The trendsetter was Trevor Williams, who tossed a scoreless first, escaping a jam thanks to a 6-4-3 double play but allowing just two singles (one of them a little dribbler between the mound and third base).

“We were just trying to stay over the white part of the plate today,” Williams said. “We did a good job of that. You don’t want to be walking guys the first of spring training. To be able to not walk anybody today was a positive. Pitching out of a jam and letting the guys turn a double play behind me was fun, too.”

In his first start since signing a two-year, $13 million deal with the Nationals in December, Williams did exactly what they expected from the veteran projected to open the season as their No. 5 starter.

So did Cade Cavalli, who followed Williams out of the bullpen and retired the side in the second inning on 15 pitches. That sequence included a strikeout of Shay Whitcomb, who was caught looking at a 3-2 fastball on the inside corner.

Cavalli’s known for using his electric repertoire to strike out hitters swinging. He can take something positive from notching his first K of the spring via a called third strike, especially with his fastball.

“It’s always a good sign,” the rookie right-hander said. “That means either you surprised them, or you executed a pitch they felt like they couldn’t get to. That’s a good feeling, no doubt.”

Cavalli, who made his major league debut in late August but then was shut down with shoulder inflammation and didn’t return to pitch before season’s end, further distanced himself from the injury with today’s spring debut.

He insists his shoulder isn’t on his mind anymore.

“There’s been a lot of work, and it’s good to see that in a real game situation,” he said. “I was happy with how I felt physically, how I felt mentally. I just know the work I put in, I trust it and I have confidence in it.”

The Nationals also got clean innings of relief from Joan Adon (thanks in part to a spectacular, over-the-shoulder catch by shortstop Jeter Downs), Hunter Harvey, Mason Thompson, Hobie Harris and Jordan Weems, who struck out a pair in the ninth despite getting called for a pitch-clock violation (the Nats’ only one of the afternoon).

Up the road in Port St. Lucie, the Nats got 1-2-3 innings from starter Josiah Gray (who needed only nine pitches and topped out at 97 mph) and relievers Paolo Espino, Jackson Rutledge, Jake Irvin and Corey Abbott. They wound up taking a 6-3 loss, with three of the runs scoring off the only two pitchers who issued walks (Tommy Romero, Francisco Pérez).

All told, Nationals pitchers have allowed only 24 baserunners in 26 innings early this spring, their 0.923 WHIP ranking second-best in the majors at this point.

In a potentially related development, all three games have been completed in fewer than 2 hours, 30 minutes, with this afternoon’s home win checking in at a scant 2 hours, 7 minutes.

Might the faster pace dictated by the new pitch clock be helping guys throw more strikes and avoid those pesky walks?

“Yes, I think so,” Martinez said. “These guys are working quicker. They’ve got to be engaged. It takes a lot thinking away from them. Lay down the sign, and they’re going with it.”

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