No rotation changes for Nats while young starters get extra rest

Among the top priorities for Nationals’ player development at the major league level this year is the production of the young arms in the starting rotation: Josiah Gray and MacKenzie Gore.

In that category, they are off to a great start. Despite being 0-4, thanks in large part to the lack of run support, Gray has a 3.74 ERA over his first four starts, including five-plus innings on one-run ball against the Orioles last night. He has only allowed one home run since surrendering three on Opening Day against the Braves.

Meanwhile, Gore is 2-0 with a 3.00 ERA and 18 strikeouts over his first three starts ahead of tonight’s outing against Baltimore.

But right up there with the organization’s list of goals is also keeping these two young arms fresh to pitch throughout the course of the season.

Gray more than doubled his previous season high in innings pitched last year by throwing 148 ⅔ frames. He started to fade near the end of the campaign, so the team shut him down in the last week of September.

Gore is coming off left elbow inflammation that limited him to a total of 87 innings between the majors with the Padres, Triple-A El Paso and then Triple-A Rochester in four starts after he was traded to the Nats in August. He has only pitched more than 100 innings once, throwing 101 frames in 2019 between San Diego’s High-A and Double-A affiliates.

The opening portion of the Nationals’ schedule wasn’t conducive to giving pitchers extra rest between starts. After the built-in off-day after Opening Day, the Nationals played games in 12 straight days. However, now they are finishing the second half of April with four scheduled off-days, including two in the next five days after this two-game set against the Orioles.

With this opportunity to maybe move the rotation around to give Gray and Gore some extra rest, the Nationals are instead sticking with the same order they’ve had from the get-go, listing Trevor Williams, Chad Kuhl and Patrick Corbin as the probable starters for the three games in Minnesota this weekend.

Did they consider taking advantage of the off-days by changing the order?

“Yeah, we did. But we want to keep it the same,” said manager Davey Martinez, who said earlier this season he was going to look to get some of the young arms some extra rest when they finally have off-days. “These guys are starting to throw the ball really well. We want to keep that rotation going as it is. So yeah, they'll have the three games in Minnesota.”

Now just because the order isn’t changing doesn’t mean they are not getting extra rest. Last Thursday’s off-day after the cross-country trip home from Anaheim and Monday’s off-day before this two-game Battle of the Beltways means both Gray and Gore each had exactly a week in between starts. And being lined up to start the first two games against the Mets in New York next week, with off-days tomorrow and Monday, means they’ll have another week between outings.

That series against the Mets starts a stretch of 16 straight days with scheduled games. And then the Nationals only have two scheduled off-days in May. So with the lack of resting opportunities coming next month, the Nats will probably look to change the rotation then.

“It's good to have some of these days off because our pitching staff is so young,” Martinez said. “It gives them an extra day in between. But we're still early in the season. Come the end of May, June, when we really need them, that's when we're gonna have to start finagling a little bit to try to give him some days here and there. But for right now, those guys are fresh. They are doing well. They feel good.”

Keeping tabs on how the pitchers are feeling after each start will also be key in determining the rotation. Gray has thrown 87, 102, 103 and 98 pitches in his starts. Gore has thrown 93, 98 and 88 ahead of tonight’s start. Seeing how they recover may be just as important as the results from each outing.

“Talked to Josiah today and he said that he feels really good,” Martinez said, “because his pitch count has been up there in the hundreds. Yesterday it was (98). But he said, 'I feel great.' So that's awesome.”

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