Rutledge labors, Finnegan cruises, Robles progresses

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Neither of Jackson Rutledge’s two innings today was particularly strong. He walked three batters in the top of the first. Then he surrendered four hits in the second, two of those Red Sox batters eventually coming around to score.

As poor as the results were, Davey Martinez much preferred Rutledge’s second inning to his first one.

“I’d rather see him throw strikes like he did,” the Nationals manager said following a 4-3 exhibition victory. “He just fell behind a little more than he did the last time. Last time, he was strike one. The key for him is to work ahead. The secondary pitches just weren’t effective today.”

Getting a chance to start four days after he tossed two crisp innings of relief, Rutledge looked like a wholly different pitcher. He walked three of the game’s first five batters, and though he escaped that inning with no runs across the plate, he was already behind the eight-ball with a pitch count of 27.

The rookie right-hander was much more around the strike zone in the second inning, throwing 17 of his 23 pitches for strikes. That did contribute to four singles, but he also managed to close out his afternoon with back-to-back strikeouts, something of a silver lining for him.

“The rhythm wasn’t really there for me today,” he said. “I found it toward the end of the second inning a little bit. … I think today in a regular-season game, I have the opportunity to still go out and get five or six innings. Obviously not my sharpest stuff in two, but I’m limited to two. In-season, I’ll get more than two.”

Rutledge set about today trying to work on a still-developing cutter, a pitch he wants to incorporate against left-handers in place of a curveball he didn’t find particularly effective last season. He did get one of his strikeouts on the cutter, but he’s still not nearly comfortable enough with the pitch to know it will consistently be effective.

“It’s the second game throwing the cutter in my life,” he said. “So we’ve got to figure out how that’s going to play and just keep throwing it.”

That’s a tricky proposition for a 24-year-old trying to convince club officials he should make the Opening Day rotation (or at least be the first starter called up from Triple-A when the need arises). How do you balance the need to work on something new with the need to compete?

“I don’t mind when they’re working on something,” Martinez said. “What I always tell them is: It’s great, and you’ve got to try to do it in the game. But the biggest thing for me is strike one. Pound the strike zone. Then you can do it. For these young kids, I’m looking to see if you can throw strikes or not. And I’m also looking at, if things go crazy, how well are you handling yourself?”

* Kyle Finnegan was working on something today: a sweeper he’s looking to throw in place of a slider he all but abandoned last summer when it wasn’t effective enough. Unlike Rutledge, the 32-year-old closer found a way to try out that new pitch later in counts and finish off hitters with it.

Pitching the top of the fifth, Finnegan struck out the side, his first K coming on the sweeper, the other two on fastballs.

Finnegan essentially became a two-pitch guy last summer, but those two pitches (fastball, splitter) were good enough (and distinct enough from each other) to get the job done. He’d love to add something more this year to keep hitters more honest.

“Finnegan’s always been toying around with trying to get a third pitch,” Martinez said. “'Cause everything he throws is hard. So he wanted to create some kind of deception, more or less. We told him it’s either of two ways: Take a little bit off your slider, or work on a curveball. And because you throw a slider, it’s a lot easier to do that (take something off it) as opposed to trying to throw a big curveball.”

* Victor Robles has a long way to go to prove he’s back after several disappointing seasons and a back injury last year. But the early returns at the plate are positive.

Robles has reached base in four of his seven plate appearances so far, drawing three walks and today delivering an RBI single to center. That kind of patient, don’t-try-to-do-too-much approach was on display last spring and in April, until the back injury brought an abrupt halt to his season.

Whether it sticks this time and Robles is able to become the hitter the Nationals have always hoped he’d be remains to be seen. For now, they’re happy to see some positive results.

“I always tell myself: He missed a lot of time, and he’s going to have to catch up a little bit,” Martinez said. “This winter, I know he played four or five games (in the Dominican Republic), just to see how he felt. But he’s putting a lot of work in. He’s working really hard with (hitting coach Darnell Coles), trying to hone in on his swing. He’s really working on trying to stay in the middle of the field right now, and he’s done a good job.”

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