Who’s the Nationals’ starting pitcher today? This wouldn’t normally be a question without a definitive answer hours before first pitch, but it is the case for today’s series finale in Philadelphia.
That’s because the Nats are choosing to go with a bullpen game this afternoon at Citizens Bank Park. Not necessarily because they want to, but because they believe it’s their best option at this point.
This would’ve been Stephen Strasburg’s turn to pitch, but the right-hander is back on the injured list with nerve irritation in his neck. Erick Fedde is slated to take over Strasburg’s spot in the rotation, but because the right-hander had to wait three days to make his rehab start for Single-A Wilmington due to back-to-back rainouts, he’s not able to pitch again yet.
(Fedde, for those who haven’t heard yet, allowed two runs in five innings Saturday afternoon in Wilmington, throwing 72 pitches.)
So that leaves a hole in the rotation today, and rather than call up a starter from the minors, the Nationals have elected to go with a string of relievers who are already on the big league staff.
“I don’t know who’s necessarily going to start,” manager Davey Martinez said in his Zoom session with reporters following Saturday’s 5-2 loss, “but the bullpen’s definitely on alert right now.”
It stands to reason Austin Voth will be part of the mix, most likely throwing the most innings of the group. The starter-turned-reliever took over when Strasburg was pulled Tuesday in Atlanta and wound up retiring the first 10 batters he faced before issuing a walk and surrendering a two-run homer to Ronald Acuña Jr. on his 50th pitch of the appearance.
And you’d think Paolo Espino will find his way in there, as well, as another starter-turned-reliever who threw one inning Tuesday and another inning Thursday but nothing else all week.
So maybe Voth and Espino can combine to churn out five or six innings and get the game to the Nationals’ back-end relievers with a chance to win. That certainly looks like the simplest path on paper.
What, though, if Martinez did something really unconventional? Like using an opener, a reliever who starts the game but only plans to throw one, maybe two innings, before handing it over to a teammate capable of taking on a larger workload than that?
Here’s why it might make sense in this particular case: The top of the Phillies’ typical lineup includes two left-handed batters (Odúbel Herrera and Bryce Harper) surrounding a right-handed hitter (Jean Segura). Why not put a lefty on the mound just to face those three batters before turning to a righty to face Rhys Hoskins, J.T. Realmuto, Andrew McCutchen and whoever follows them in the order?
The problem - truthfully, one of several problems - is that the Nationals have only two lefties in their bullpen and one of them is their closer. Martinez probably wants to make sure he has Brad Hand available to face that part of the lineup in the eighth or ninth inning.
The other lefty, Sam Clay, faced all three of those hitters in the bottom of the eighth Saturday and gave up hits to all of them. So the rookie might not necessarily give them a better chance in the first inning today as Voth would as more of a traditional starter.
Unless Martinez wants to get crazy and declare the first inning just as important as the eighth or ninth and actually use his closer right from the get-go. It would be highly unconventional, and even if it worked it might leave the Nationals bullpen in a shaky position later in the game. Then again, they have another experienced closer in Daniel Hudson, who could be saved for a potential save situation.
The Nationals have used an opener only once in their history: Matt Grace, who started July 27, 2019, against the Dodgers and actually tossed two perfect innings with three strikeouts before handing the game over to Joe Ross, who was lit up by the Los Angeles lineup.
The circumstances are different today. And the chances of Martinez actually using his closer to open the game are probably slim to none.
Then again, at this point, what do he and the Nats have to lose?