Unexpected delays couldn't derail Fedde's breakthrough

Erick Fedde's phone rang around midnight, a few hours following the Nationals' May 18 loss in Chicago. He was immediately asked where he was (his hotel room) and instructed not to leave.

"Wait, what are you talking about?" the right-hander finally asked.

At which point he was told the news: "You have COVID."

"I was like, it has to be a false positive," Fedde said Sunday during a one-on-one interview outside the dugout at Nationals Park. "Unfortunately, it wasn't. I guess shock is really the only way to describe it."

Fedde didn't understand. He had been vaccinated. He felt perfectly normal. He even made sure every family member and friend he visited with in Arizona a few days earlier while the Nats played the Diamondbacks had been vaccinated. Yet he still tested positive for the virus.

Which meant, on the heels of the best start of his major league career, the 28-year-old was now forced to isolate inside that Chicago hotel room for a week before he could return to Washington. And then it would be another three weeks before he would take the mound for another big league game.

At that point, given everything else he'd been through since the Nationals drafted him seven years ago, all Fedde could do was throw his arms out, look to the heavens and wonder what he had done to deserve this.

"It was like: Well, here we go again," he said with a laugh. "Why have anything go smoothly?"

Very little has gone smoothly during Fedde's bumpy career. He had Tommy John surgery days before the 2014 draft, the Nats still willing to use the 18th overall pick on the lanky right-hander from UNLV and former teammate of Bryce Harper at Las Vegas High School.

He made his major league debut three years later, getting roughed up by the Rockies for seven runs and 10 hits in four innings. He would spend the next three seasons bouncing back and forth between Washington, Fresno, Syracuse and Harrisburg, or sometimes between the Nationals rotation and bullpen, never truly getting a chance to stay in one place and in one role for more than a month or two at a time.

He still hasn't made more than 12 starts in one big league season, still hasn't topped 80 major league innings in any one season, still has totaled only 245 1/3 innings in 56 career outings for the Nationals (44 of those starts).

And those opportunities, when they have come, typically have come only because of the misfortune of someone else. Maybe because Stephen Strasburg was on the injured list. Maybe because Joe Ross decided to opt out of the pandemic-shortened season. Maybe because the team just needed a fill-in starter once or twice during a condensed stretch of games in the middle of the summer.

Finally, though, that may have changed. At last, Fedde appears to have earned his place in the Nationals rotation. And he may not be in any danger of losing it, even when everyone else is healthy.

With a 3.33 ERA and 1.149 WHIP in 10 starts this season - 2.54 ERA and 1.007 WHIP if you throw out his disastrous, 1 2/3-inning April 7 debut vs. the Braves - Fedde is enjoying sustained success for the first time.

And that's allowing him to take the mound every fifth day and not feel like he needs to look over his shoulder much, not worry one bad start could doom him to another demotion to the bullpen or Triple-A.

"You'd like to think it shouldn't change your mindset, but a part of you always has in the back of your head that if you don't go out there and throw really well, you could be sent back down," he said. "I guess that's a little weight off the shoulders now. It's nice to know I can really be set in my routine and not be worried about things changing too much, other than rain or small things like that."

Thumbnail image for Fedde-Deals-Gray-Sidebar.jpgAh yes, rain. That's also a Fedde special. For whatever reason, every Nationals rain delay or postponement seems to occur on a day he's supposed to pitch. It even happened as he tried to make his one and only rehab start following the aforementioned stint on the COVID-19 IL. Twice he was supposed to pitch for Single-A Wilmington, and twice that game was rained out. He finally took the mound June 5, got his five innings in, and put himself in position to rejoin the Nats rotation the following week.

There was talk of just activating Fedde right away and letting him start a game that weekend in Philadelphia. And he was ready to do it. Instead, the club elected to go with a bullpen game - one that saw Austin Voth depart after two innings when he was struck with a fastball while batting and broke his nose - and ensure the righty got his long-awaited rehab start in.

"I think it was nice the team didn't rush me back, even though I was saying I wanted to pitch," Fedde said. "Rather than have a bullpen day, just throw me in there. 'No, you're going to go make a start and get your innings in. We want you to feel right coming back.' I think they look pretty smart right now."

That they did, because Fedde has been lights-out since.

He made his return June 12, one day later than originally planned because of - yep, that's right - another rainout, and shut out the Giants over five innings. He then shut out the Mets on two hits over seven innings Friday night, keeping the game scoreless and making Yan Gomes' walk-off single in the bottom of the ninth possible.

Add those two starts to the brilliant one he authored May 16 in Arizona before contracting COVID-19, and Fedde is now working on a consecutive scoreless streak of 20 innings.

How's he doing this? He's throwing more strikes early in the count, throwing a career-best 64.3 percent of his first pitches for strikes and getting to an 0-2 count in a career-best 22.4 percent of his plate appearances. He's using four pitches effectively, including a cutter that has become an especially effective weapon for inducing swings and misses up in the zone (opponents have whiffed at that pitch 25.2 percent of the time, as opposed to only 13.5 percent of his sinkers down in the zone).

Put that together, and Fedde is now striking out a career-best 8.6 batters per nine innings, up from only 4.8 the previous two seasons combined.

"The ability to throw four pitches makes it a lot tougher to scout me," he said. "I really think that pitch (the cutter) has opened up the top of the plate. I feel like I've always been able to split down on both sides of the plate. Now to be able to have something to stand somebody up at the top of the zone, it's just a whole game-changer."

And with all that comes that indefinable quality Fedde is starting to show. He looks more sure of himself. He's not letting innings spiral out of control once one or two things go wrong. He has mound presence at last.

"He's got some confidence right now, he really does," manager Davey Martinez said. "He's throwing the ball well. He's throwing all of his pitches really well, locating really well. A lot of times, if you notice, he's going 0-2, 1-2 and he's trying to make that really nasty pitch. All he's gotta do is throw the ball the way he's throwing when he's 0-2, and he's going to get outs."

At this point, as he prepares to start Wednesday afternoon against the Phillies, Fedde looks very much like the Nationals' second-best starter behind Max Scherzer. Whether he can sustain that status remains to be seen, but this much is certain: He isn't about to lose his job just because someone else comes off the IL.

Not that he's allowing himself to think in those terms too much yet.

"I'm just going try to continue to pitch well to keep my job," he said. "The older guys are good at reminding you of things. Three starts is 10 percent of the season. I mean, at one point this season I had a 27.00 ERA. I don't want to go out there and let one or two bad starts ruin all the hard work I've done. I've just got to stay positive and continue."

And, of course, hope there's no rain in the forecast the next time he's scheduled to pitch.

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