NEW YORK – If the Nationals are able to play both of today’s newly scheduled doubleheader games against the Mets – and based on the forecast, that’s a big if – they will be sending Cory Abbott to the mound to start Game 1 and Paolo Espino to start Game 2.
And if history repeats itself, Abbott and Espino are likely to pitch very well for two or three innings, then struggle mightily after that.
The right-handers have had no trouble retiring opposing hitters once per game this season. Abbott, when facing a hitter for the first time within a game (either as a starter or reliever) has held the opposition to a miniscule .165 batting average and .576 OPS. Espino’s numbers in the same situation: a .235 batting average and .645 OPS.
The problems arise when they have to face those same hitters a second or third time. In those situations, opponents are batting .324 with a 1.133 OPS against Abbott and .340 with a .958 OPS against Espino.
At the moment, there’s not much the Nationals can do about it. They’ve needed both Abbott and Espino to start down the stretch, and Davey Martinez has no choice but to try to get as many innings as he can out of each.
But there’s a case to be made that the club could consider bringing both guys back in 2023 but letting neither face a lineup twice in the same game. That could be done either be making them both long relievers. Or perhaps Martinez could get creative and have Abbott and Espino share a start, with each pitching three innings to potentially get the ball to the back end of his bullpen.
“If you see the trend now in all of baseball with starters, there’s not very many that go seven innings,” Martinez said. “Having a guy in the bullpen that can give you two-plus innings, both those guys can do that for us. We actually have thought about putting them together, and even somebody in between. That’s a good possibility.”
It would require four other reliable starters on the roster, plus seven reliable relievers who wouldn’t be needed for this role. But it could actually be a way to maximize Abbott and Espino’s abilities and turn them into effective big-league pitchers by reducing their workload and not giving other clubs a chance to get too comfortable facing them.
Espino, 35, has a bit more track record with the Nationals, having totaled 228 2/3 innings with a 4.29 ERA and 1.273 WHIP since debuting late in the 2020 season. Abbott, 25, has pitched in only 15 games for the Nats, eight of those starts, and he has totaled only 44 innings while posting a 5.11 ERA and 1.364 WHIP.
Martinez, though, likes some of what he’s seen out of Abbott this season. Even if it’s mostly come in shorter bursts, not stretched out starts.
“Whether we deem him a starter, whether we deem him a long relief guy, his stuff plays,” Martinez said. “He goes through three or four innings where he looks like he’s going to keep us in the ballgame, which he has. Then the pitch count gets up, he starts leaving balls up, we see the home runs after that. He’s another guy I talk about creating an identity for himself and wanting to know who he is. I think he’s starting to understand he’s a guy that really needs to keep the ball down. Everything plays when he throws the ball down.”