With new cutter, Irvin still competing for rotation spot

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Today is Jake Irvin Day as the big right-hander finally gets to make his first start of spring training.

Yes, the 27-year-old has already appeared in two Grapefruit League games, but both were in relief out of the bullpen.

Tonight he’ll jog out of the visiting dugout in the bottom of the first inning of the Nationals’ game against the Mets in Port St. Lucie.

Irvin’s results in his first two outings are not what he had hoped for. He gave up a run on two hits and two hit batters while striking out four over two innings Feb. 25 against the Marlins in Jupiter. Then Friday against the Astros, he was charged with seven runs (six earned) on five hits, a home run and two walks with two strikeouts in 1 ⅔ innings.

He threw 42 pitches (28 strikes) during the third and fourth innings of the first game but was limited to just 27 pitches (16 strikes) over the sixth and seventh innings of the second game.

Results in early spring training rarely ever matter. Irvin is focusing on his pitches instead of his statline at this point in camp.

“Right now, it's just trying to compete and make the team,” he said. “The big focus for me this offseason was changeup and the new cutter that I added, so I'm working on that a lot. But overall, man, it's just getting hitters out.”

Make the team? Irvin has been counted as one of the five starting pitchers in the Nationals rotation all offseason after going 4-7 with a 4.61 ERA and 99 strikeouts during a surprisingly impressive rookie season.

Does he feel like he still has to earn his spot?

“Yeah, absolutely, man,” he said. “I think everybody would probably feel the same way. Nothing is handed to us. And at the end of the day, we got to come in and compete and show that we still earn that role.”

Helping him earn that role is his new cutter. Irving threw a four-seam fastball, curveball, sinker and changeup last year. But by the end of the season, he and the Nationals coaching staff decided he needed something different to throw to left-handed hitters.

Lefties slashed .274/.357/.496 with an .853 OPS, 12 doubles, one triple, 14 homers and 30 walks off Irvin last year. They hit .247 and slugged .443 off his fastball, which he threw them 41 percent of the time. They weren’t as effective off his curveball (.234/.406), but they crushed his sinker to the tune of a .348 average and .636 slugging percentage. And the few times he offered them changeups, they slugged .560 off it.

Enter the cutter, which is a version of the fastball that will “cut” in on lefties from the righty.

“It's progressing really well,” Irvin said. “I'm throwing it for strikes and where I want to, which has been really good, especially this early in spring training and throwing it to hitters in live games. We kind of decided last year that I needed something that could keep lefties on their toes, up-and-in, middle-in and down-and-in. Just something harder because I was throwing curveballs and fastballs, there was a big gap there. We wanted something that was more in the middle. So adding that just to make it a lot harder for hitters.”

After his impressive first two starts in early May, over which he only gave up one run and struck out eight over 10 ⅔ innings, Irvin went through the normal ups and downs of a pitcher’s rookie year. He struggled at times, but also flashed enough to keep his spot in the big league rotation for the remainder of the season. Getting it as high as 5.81 in early June, he got his ERA down to a respectable 4.20 in September.

What were the biggest takeaways from his first extended stint as a big leaguer?

“Oh, man, too many things,” he said. “The biggest thing is just be grateful for every day. Be grateful that you get to play the game, be around these guys and compete at the highest level. It's really cool.”

Irvin hopes getting back into a starter’s routine will help his spring training results. He’s never really been one to come out of the bullpen.

Despite the fact that most expect him to be among the five starters the Nats take north when camp breaks in less than three weeks, he is just focusing on performing well enough to earn that spot. Starting with starting.

“I sure hope so, man,” Irvin said of his results improving once he starts again. “I'm not acquainted with coming out of the 'pen. It's different for me. But it's one of those things that you just got to deal with. Take the ball whenever your name is called. But yeah, it'd be nice to start though.”

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