The Nationals didn’t submit tonight’s starting lineup until 45 minutes before first pitch, the sense being they were waiting to see if any or all of Juan Soto, Trea Turner and Jordy Mercer were available to play after departing Wednesday’s win over the Rays with injuries.
Then the lineup came out, and Turner and Mercer were missing. Which leaves the Nats in a most precarious position: Backup catcher Alex Avila is starting at second base for the first time in his career.
Yes, you read that correctly. With two of their four middle infielders unavailable, somebody had to play out of position. Manager Davey Martinez elected to go with Avila at second base, Starlin Castro making his first start of the season at shortstop and Josh Harrison moving to third base.
Avila has some experience outside of the catcher’s position during his 13-year career, but that’s been restricted to 46 games at first base and one game at third base in 2011. If he has ever taken grounders at second base, it was a long time ago and not on record anywhere.
The bizarre scenario emerged after Turner jammed his left middle finger into third base while sliding for the sixth-inning triple that sealed the third cycle of his career, and after Mercer’s right quadriceps muscle cramped up late in Wednesday’s game (which was played on a 95-degree afternoon with the heat index over 100).
On the bright side, Soto appears to be OK after his left hamstring cramped during his final at-bat of the game, forcing him to be pulled. He’s starting in right field as always for tonight’s game against the Dodgers.
What other options did the Nationals have at second base besides Avila? Their only other healthy bench players tonight are Gerardo Parra, a left-handed outfielder, and Ryan Zimmerman, who was a Gold Glove third baseman earlier in his career but hasn’t played anything other than first base since 2015 due to a shoulder injury that has all but prevented him from making overhand throws since.
Why not call up another infielder from the minors? Both Luis García and Adrián Sanchez are currently on the Triple-A injured list, so that reduced their options. They could have called up Carter Kieboom, and it appears they perhaps were trying to do just that because he’s not in Triple-A Rochester’s lineup today.
But if Kieboom couldn’t make it to Nationals Park in time, the club would’ve had no choice but to formally submit a lineup card without his name on it. And so it’ll be Avila tonight starting at second base for the first time.
* The Nationals bullpen should be getting back closer to 100 percent health in the near future, with Kyle Finnegan likely days away from coming off the IL and Daniel Hudson making strides in his return as well.
Finnegan, who was eligible to return from a strained hamstring today, ran sprints at close to 100 percent speed, he said. He’s thrown off the mound and feels good and believes he’s on the verge of rejoining the active roster.
“We’re hoping within days,” Finnegan said during an on-field interview with reporters during batting practice. “It’s been a quick recovery. I can’t say enough about the staff. They’ve done a heck of a job. I feel great. No hesitation. So I’m excited to get back.”
Hudson, meanwhile, threw 25 pitches in the bullpen Wednesday and is scheduled to throw more Friday. The veteran setup man, out with right elbow inflammation, said there haven’t been any issues yet but didn’t want to put a timetable on his next steps from here.
“All the signs are good right now,” Hudson said. “As of right now, I couldn’t tell you that I’d be able to go out there and pitch and be ready again the next night. I don’t know what kind of hurdles we’re going to have to cross with that. But the guys are throwing the ball really well down there. There hasn’t been a super-urgent need for me to push past these thresholds. Let’s just check the boxes and go from there.”