Rotation puzzle for final 12 games looks complicated

MIAMI – There are 12 games remaining on the Nationals’ schedule, 12 games that need to be played in 12 days (with one off-day still on tap but a day-night doubleheader also on the slate). Which means Davey Martinez and Jim Hickey have 12 more starting pitchers to name, which is becoming a more daunting challenge than either man anticipated.

In a perfect world, the Nationals would’ve had more starters than dates that needed to be filled. They would have Cade Cavalli and MacKenzie Gore ready to finish strong and perhaps allow Josiah Gray to shut down early. They would have the ability to prevent Patrick Corbin from making a run at 20 losses. They would have kids they could summon from their farm system to take over at the end for veterans who just don’t need the work at this point.

But this is not a perfect world, and so Martinez and Hickey may be forced to do some things with their rotation they’d rather not.

Consider Gray, for example. The Nationals have been talking for months about their preference not to let the 24-year-old’s workload get too heavy in his first full professional season. The intention was always going to be to shut him down at some point in late September.

But following Friday night’s 5-2 loss to the Marlins – in which Gray looked really sharp for five innings before faltering in the sixth – Martinez admitted this decision has gotten tougher in the wake of Corbin’s recent back injury. (The left-hander, who was removed from his last start after only 12 pitches, played catch Friday and reported improvement, but there’s still no guarantee he returns to pitch before season’s end.)

“We’re still going to watch it,” the manager said of Gray’s workload, which now includes 142 2/3 innings. “Now, with the uncertainty of Corbin moving forward, we’ll have to take a look at that. But right now, I’m really on that cusp of what to do in next two or three days.”

It would help if Gore was ready to make his long-anticipated Nationals debut, but the left-hander isn’t quite there yet. On the 15-day injured list with elbow inflammation since his acquisition from the Padres at the trade deadline, he has made three rehab starts for Triple-A Rochester but will make at least one more. The plan for Monday: Gore will throw five innings and top 75 pitches, getting him closer to ready to make one start for the Nats in the season’s final week.

It stands to reason Gore will make his debut in one of next Saturday’s doubleheader games against the Phillies, though nothing is set in stone yet. Even so, that takes care of only one of these remaining 12 starts that must be scheduled.

We know Erick Fedde starts tonight against the Marlins, and we know Aníbal Sánchez has Sunday’s series finale at loanDepot Park. After that, it’s up in the air.

If Corbin isn’t ready to return quite yet, the Nationals could send Cory Abbott and Paolo Espino to the mound Monday and Tuesday against the Braves in D.C. Then either Corbin or Gray could start Wednesday’s series finale.

Then comes the tricky part: the final seven games of the year crammed into six days. The Nats will need six healthy starters to finish this out, with the person who pitches Friday night against the Phillies in Washington on track to then pitch Game 162 on Oct. 5 in New York.

It’s an ever-changing assortment of puzzle pieces for Martinez and Hickey to put together. One way or another, they’ll get 12 more starts out of this rotation. Even if it doesn’t resemble the one they thought they’d have all along.

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