Before the bullpen implosion, before the scary sight of Charlie Culberson getting hit in the face by a fastball, before the Nationals saw their lead in the wild card race shrink again, there was far and away the most encouraging element of Saturday’s loss: Austin Voth.
The game can cleanly been broken into two parts: Voth’s start, and everything that came after it. When the young right-hander departed, the Nats led the Braves 1-0. From that point on, Atlanta scored 10 unanswered runs.
“He’s got good stuff, and we’ve just got to keep him going,” manager Davey Martinez said. “Giving us 80 pitches today and five-plus innings was huge.”
Voth had already flashed this potential earlier this season, most notably in his 2019 debut, also against the Braves. And though he lasted only four innings last weekend at SunTrust Park, he was pulled more because of a stricter pitch count as he returned from biceps tendinitis than because of ineffectiveness.
What made the 27-year-old so effective Saturday was his uncanny ability to get hitters to not make contact.
Twenty of Voth’s 80 pitches were swing-and-miss strikes, a staggeringly high total. How high? No other member of the Nationals rotation has matched that 25 percent swing-and-miss rate this season, with Stephen Strasburg coming closest at 24.3 percent during his Aug. 31 start against a Marlins lineup far inferior to this group of Braves hitters.
Nine of Saturday’s swing-and-misses came on fastballs, even though he averaged only 92 mph with that pitch and topped out at 94.
“I think his fastball is not straight,” said catcher Raudy Read, who made his first start of the season Saturday but paired up with Voth many times at Triple-A Fresno at various points during the year. “When you’ve got a guy that does that with a four-seam (fastball), it’s kind of hard for the hitters to hit the ball.”
Despite his success, Voth did show signs of fatigue as he got deeper into the game. He was fortunate to get out of a fifth-inning jam when Brian McCann lined into a double play with two on and nobody out. And three batters into the sixth inning (a single and two long flyouts) it was becoming clear he was running out of gas.
Martinez walked to the mound, not necessarily to make a change but to ask his starter how he felt. Voth’s reply made the decision to signal to the bullpen easier for the manager.
“When I went out there, he was huffing and puffing,” Martinez said. “And I just asked him. I didn’t motion until I talked to him and he said: Yeah, he was good. And with him right about that 80-90 pitch right now. He gave us everything he had, and I’m really proud of him.”
Voth, who also had a small cut on his middle finger that was beginning to affect his grip, admitted he had run out of gas.
“I was a little tired,” he said. “I got a cut on my finger that I was dealing with, and it started to bug me a little bit. I felt like I kind of lost my legs in the fifth and sixth, kind of using my arm rather than my legs a little bit more than I wanted to. Kind of tired me a little bit more than I should’ve been at that point. ...
“I wanted to have a little bit extra in the tank, but I was fine with his decision.”
By the time he makes his next start, projected to come Friday in Miami, Voth should be able to build up beyond the 90-pitch mark. If things continue this way, though, and if the Nationals make it to October, there could be a new role for the right-hander, one that includes a much lower pitch count.
How about Voth as a multi-inning reliever during the postseason?
“Absolutely,” Martinez said. “As we go forward, I often think about once we get there he’d be a guy that we can plop in and he can get big outs for us.”