Starters' woes leave Nats facing some big questions

CHICAGO – There’s plenty for Davey Martinez to be concerned about these days, amid a five-game losing streak that has seen his Nationals get blown out multiple times, all while fielding a roster that looks nothing like the one he was used to only a year ago.

But nothing stands out more to Martinez right now, and rightfully so, than a rotation that hasn’t come close to holding its own during this stretch.

Entering tonight’s series opener against the Cubs, Nationals starters have averaged a scant 3.3 innings over the last five games. They haven’t had anybody complete five innings since Cory Abbott tossed five scoreless frames Aug. 2 against the Mets, hours after Juan Soto and Josh Bell were traded to the Padres.

The domino effect on the bullpen has been dramatic, with several relievers unavailable on a given night because they pitched too much the previous one.

“It’s been tough,” Martinez said. “Trying to space these guys out, trying not to use them too much. Keeping guys fresh as much as we can. Hopefully today, Aníbal’s pitching and he can give us a good 5-6 innings and then we can go from there.”

It’s nice to think Aníbal Sánchez could do as his manager hopes, but the 38-year-old has yet to record more than 15 outs in any of his four starts since coming off the injured list. If he does it tonight, the ramifications would be significant for the Nats bullpen. But nobody can assume it’s just going to happen.

Martinez, along with pitching coach Jim Hickey and bullpen coach Ricky Bones, planned to meet with all eight relievers prior to tonight’s game to find out how each is feeling. Common sense says Erasmo Ramírez, who threw 30 pitches over 2 1/3 innings Sunday in Philadelphia, won’t be available tonight. Martinez will probably want to stay away from Víctor Arano, who threw 29 pitches in one inning, as well.

It won’t matter much, though, unless the starters start pulling their own weight. Whether that’s possible from this current quintet is debatable. The question then becomes if the organization is ready to make any rotation changes in the coming days.

The Nationals do have a scheduled off-day Thursday before returning home to face Soto, Bell and the Padres beginning Friday night. Thursday happens to coincide with Patrick Corbin’s schedule, so if the club wanted to make a change – or at least skip the struggling lefty’s turn – that would seem to be an option.

Martinez wasn’t ready to make any pronouncements about his pitching plans beyond this series yet, with Paolo Espino on tap to start Tuesday and Josiah Gray on Wednesday.

“We’ll try to get through these next three days and then reset Thursday,” the manager said. “We’ll come up with a plan moving forward. Our focus is trying to go 1-0 today and go from there. But we’ve got to try to get through these three days, and hopefully our starting pitchers go a little deeper in these games.”

There are, of course, some young pitchers waiting in the wings in the minors waiting for the call, most notably Cade Cavalli, who started for Triple-A Rochester on Sunday and over his last 11 outings has a 2.22 ERA and 1.065 WHIP.

Martinez, though, continues to insist those kinds of moves will be made based only on the individual prospect’s readiness, not the major league team’s current needs.

“We’re keeping a close eye on some of our young guys, our prospects, and they’re doing better,” Martinez said. “They’re pitching better, they’re playing better. But we’ve got to be very careful. We’re building for the future. We want to make sure when we bring these guys up, they’re ready. I know we’re going to stick to that plan. I’ve talked to (general manager Mike Rizzo) a lot. Whether it’s next week, two weeks, three weeks or next spring, we’ll make that decision when the time comes. For now, I’ve got 26 guys on the roster here, and they’ve got to go out and compete each day.”

Slight pitching improvement, but still no win for ...
Game 111 lineups: Nats at Cubs

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