For the first time in eight months, starter Ross Detwiler climbed onto a mound and faced major league hitters. A herniated disk in his lower back claimed the second half of his season last year. So forgive Detwiler if he was too amped up on Monday afternoon in Tampa when facing the New York Yankees. He got away with misplaced pitches in his first inning, but suffered as he elevated more sinkers in his second and last inning of the Nationals’s 4-2 loss, their first defeat in four Grapefruit League games.
Even though he allowed four runs, three earned, on five hits, Detwiler was pleased with how he felt on the mound and that he could finish his curveball, which he couldn’t do last season while injured. The pitch could emerge a bigger weapon for him this season, along with his cutter-in-progress. Detwiler’s sinking fastball sat between 92 and 94 mph. Detwiler, who is competing to reclaim his spot as the fifth starter, blamed his excitement for elevating his sinkers. Manager Matt Williams pulled him with one out and two runners on in the second inning.
“I had a tough time slowing myself down out there,” Detwiler said. “Especially before the game, I tried to take as much time as I could to warm up. I was just kind of a little over-amped. In those situations you need to step back and slow yourself down quite a bit. I didn’t do a great job of that.”
In the first inning, Detwiler struck out left-hander Brett Gardner looking on a fastball. With two strikes on left-hander Brian McCann, a familiar face from his Atlanta Braves days, Detwiler unfurled a high curveball that dropped in and froze McCann. In all, Detwiler fired nine curveballs.
The Nationals have urged Detwiler to throw off-speed pitches for some time, and he knows he needs to. Last season, he threw a fastball 88 percent of the time, his curveball only 8 percent of the time and his change-up 4 percent. The previous season, the best of his career, the left-hander threw a fastball 80 percent of the time. Detwiler has worked diligently to incorporate a cutter this spring, but an improved curveball could also help when he faces the lineup a third and fourth time in a game. He threw one cutter on Monday, but he was pleased with his curveball, a feeling that emerged during camp.
“I think it’s really a pitch you have to finish,” Detwiler said. “Being healthy now, I kind of realized how bad it was, how I was kind of standing up on it and not finishing it, so it would kind of roll out of my hand. So I think if I stay through it, I kind of showed myself [Monday] that it could be pretty good.”
Catcher Jose Lobaton, who started Monday, said coaches told him Detwiler needed to work on his secondary pitches. He came away impressed.
“The curveball that I saw [Monday], from the bullpen to the game, that was awesome,” Lobaton said. “That’s a big league curveball. If he can throw that pitch and throw that two-seamer, I think he’s gonna make a lot of outs. Catching, I can see a lot of stuff and I can say that the breaking ball that he showed me today, that was really good. I really like it.”
>>> Tanner Roark, who is also competing for the last spot in the rotation, fired two scoreless innings after Danny Rosenbaum notched the final two outs of the second inning. The right-hander allowed two hits but erased one with a double play in the third and the other thanks to a strong throw from Tyler Moore in left field to nab Zoilo Almonte trying to stretch a single into a double in the fourth.
Roark kept his sinking fastball low in the strike zone and induced three groundballs out of the six batters he faced. “Really good command,” Lobaton said of Roark.
Roark said he feels right on track with his spring schedule and arm strength. He is confident in the feel of his pitches. He wants to work hard to ensure he stays ahead in the count against hitters, reads their swings correctly and pitches inside. He even fired a slide-step slider on Monday. Like many pitchers in camp, Roark has worked to vary his times to home plate to mess with hitters’ timing.
“They’re really stressing a lot to hold the ball while you’re in the stretch,” Roark said. “I like doing that because it ruins their timing up big time. And that’s what pitching is all about.”
Roark has experience starting and relieving the minors and major leagues, but would prefer to start. Ultimately, he is willing to do whatever is needed to make the team. When he makes his spring appearances, he said he is doing his best to block out concerns about the future.
“I try not to think about it at all,” he said. “If you fill you head with that kind of stuff it can be negative for you. Just try to stay positive and go out there and compete and play hard and leave it all on the field.”
>>> Christian Garcia, an option to make the bullpen, pitched the sixth inning and was more effective than in his first outing of the spring. His fastball sat between 92 and 94 mph, and more of his pitches were in the strike zone than before. Garcia, a former Yankees farmhand, allowed a broken-bat double to Francisco Cervelli with one out and walked Ichiro Suzuki, struggling to locate low breaking balls. But he escaped the inning with a flyout and groundout.
“He looked a little more comfortable out there, a little more calmed down,” Williams said.
>>> Hitting left-handed, Zach Walters smashed a home run off Shawn Kelley to deep center, more than 400 feet away, in the top of the fifth inning. Walters is 6 for 7 this spring with four extra-base hits.