Through two starts, Ross Detwiler has been the Nationals’ best pitcher, let alone starter. He allowed his first run with two outs in the seventh inning of Friday’s start against the Atlanta Braves, ending a 12 2/3 inning scoreless streak to commence the season. He has allowed only one earned run and walked three over his first two starts. The Nationals’ early bullpen struggles and sloppy defense, however, have cost him two wins. “I feel real bad about that,” Manager Davey Johnson said.
Detwiler, not your typical No. 5 starter, plowed through the Braves lineup on Friday. Last season, their lefty-dominated lineup played to his strengths as a left-handed starter. Against more right-handed hitters, Detwiler was still just as sharp. He allowed only one run over seven innings on Friday, firing 93 to 96 mph fastballs and 89 to 92 mph sinkers.
“Early on I felt like it was pretty good,” he said. “I was moving some hitters back off the plate and letting the sinker work a little bit. But there were a lot of three-ball counts in there and overall that’s what kept me out of the later end of the game.”
Detwiler felt strong enough to pitch return to the mound for the eighth after 90 pitches but Johnson opted not to. Tyler Clippard is successful against left-handers, and two of the first three batters due up in the inning were left-handers — pinch hitter Jordan Schafer and outfielder Jason Heyward. Johnson has eased his starters into their workloads while leaning more on his relievers. Detwiler wanted to pitch the eighth but the decision rested in Johnson’s hands.
“I felt strong at the end,” he said. “Like I said, I wish there was less three-ball counts so I could have gone deeper. The bullpen has been taxed the last few days. They’ve been working pretty hard and I was kinda shooting to give them a night off but I wish I could have gone a little deeper.”
Detwiler, in fact, reached three-ball counts with four batters and walked two. Johnson’s plan backfired when Clippard struggled with his standout change-up before loading the bases and walking in a run. Drew Storen salvaged the inning, but an errant throw by Ryan Zimmerman in the ninth allowed the Braves to tie the game at 4-4. A two-run home run by Ramiro Pena off Craig Stammen was the decisive blow.
Astonishingly, Detwiler was incredibly effective with one pitch. Of his 90 pitches, 85 were fastballs. He threw only four curveballs and one change-up. However, he employs four-seam and two-seam (essentially a sinker) fastballs as two distinct pitches. Their movements can be hard to predict and difficult for hitters. “If I don’t know [where it’s moving], they’re not going to know,” he said.
While Detwiler wouldn’t necessarily admit to feeling confident given his first two strong starts, he can certainly sense it. “There are 27 outs in a game and I’m just trying to get ground balls and get them out,” he said. “If they get a base hit, then we try to turn, too. It’s trying to get early contact.”