Last spring, starter Chris Young was near the top of the Nationals‘ pitching depth chart. If any of the Nationals’ main five starters were to suffer injuries, the veteran right-hander was the likely first choice from Class AAA Syracuse to patch up the rotation. But an injury that had been bugging Young for some time finally forced him to find a remedy.
Young landed on the disabled list last May with a strain in his neck and shoulder area. The 6-foot-10 right-hander had dealt with shoulder problems throughout his career, but it wasn’t that problem again. Last June, Young had thoracic outlet syndrome.
Young, 34, said part of a rib was removed in surgery, some neck muscles that wrapped the problem nerve were scrapped off and his pectoral muscle was thinned in one area in a procedure called pectoralis minor tenotomy. He said he feels immensely better and is excited to provide the starting rotation insurance that he couldn’t a year ago.
“I feel completely different,” he said. “I’ve battled shoulder stuff for really the last five years and last year when they finally said this isn’t your shoulder this is a nerve issue, thoracic outlet syndrome, my shoulder feels like it did five, six years ago. I’m really excited about it. I expect it to stay that way. It’s the best it’s felt in a long time. I want to get back to being the pitcher I can be.”
Young made his third spring appearance for the Nationals’ split squad team in a 3-2 walkoff loss on Wednesday in Lake Buena Vista against the Atlanta Braves. He allowed two runs on three hits over three innings. He struck out three and walked one. The two runs he surrendered came on a home run by Braves left-hander Freddie Freeman, who drilled a pitch into the small camera well in the center field wall.
“I think the ball was coming out good,” said Billy Gardner Jr., the Class AAA Syracuse manager who managed this split squad team on Wednesday while Nationals Manager Matt Williams was in Kissimmee with the other split squad. “Some really good quality strikes down in the zone and got that one and fell behind on Freeman; he’s a good hitter and one of the best in National League. But I thought he looked pretty good. Probably toward the end started to spread the ball a little bit more, but overall I thought he was good.”
Before he gave up the home run, Young was thriving with location and his arm angle, which makes a sharp downward plane for batters. He induced several high pop-ups, and his fastball sat in the high 80s. He fired 57 pitches, 37 for strikes. He has allowed four runs and four walks while striking out six in eight innings this spring.
“I felt good,” he said. “The first two starts I felt okay. Today, I felt better. A step in the right direction. Command was better. The fastball had better life. Breaking ball was sharp. Still a lot of room for improvement. Stuff-wise, it’s coming along. Getting to where it needs to be.”
Young is long done with his rehab, which was brief because nothing in his body was repaired, just cleaned up. He threw only 37 innings over nine starts last season, but expects to produce better results now that he is healthy. In his first five years in the major leagues, from 2004 to 2008, Young averaged 131 innings a year and posted a 3.72 ERA. In 2007, he was an all-star with the San Diego Padres and finished with a 3.12 ERA over 173 innings.
“I’d like to think that if I’m healthy, I’d be in the big league somewhere,” Young said. “Whether it’s here or elsewhere. I’ve had a pretty good track record. With my stuff coming back, I have that opportunity.”
Young re-signed with the Nationals in the offseason, agreeing to a minor league deal again. Even though he pitched little last season, Young enjoyed his time with the Nationals. While he was hurt, the organization dipped down into Class AA Harrisburg for Nate Karns and Taylor Jordan.
“I appreciate the opportunity the Nationals gave me last year,” Young said. “I felt back when I wasn’t there when they needed pitching. I wasn’t available. I love the organization and I love the front office. I love the people, (General Manager Mike Rizzo), the Lerner family, (assistant general manager) Bryan Minniti, and the special assistants, everybody. It’s a good group and I love the organization. I understand it’s a business and there may not be a spot for me this year but there might be somewhere else. So we’ll see.”
>>> Denard Span looked good at the plate, finishing 2 for 3. Gardner was pleased with Span’s baserunning, although he was caught stealing.
“Span swung the bat really good,” Gardner said. “I thought he was aggressive on the bases. That’s something that Matt [Williams] talks about, being aggressive, and that’s something he did.”
There is a downside to aggressive base-running. Bryce Harper tried to take third base in the fourth inning after a single and an error by left fielder Ryan Doumit. He was thrown out on a relay started by center fielder Matt Lipka. “It’s gonna happen sometimes,” Gardner said.
>>> Left-hander Danny Rosenbaum allowed three base runners over two innings and right-hander Clay Hensley surrendered two walks in an inning but neither allowed a run. Right-hander Josh Roenicke fired a perfect inning and right-hander Luis Ayala fired a scoreless eighth inning. Minor leaguer Robert Benincasa allowed the winning run in the 10th inning on two hits.
>>> Zach Walters, who hasn’t played second base since 2011, has started there twice in the past three games. He made a nice turn at second in the fourth inning on a wide throw by third baseman Anthony Rendon.
“He’s doing a pretty good job,” Gardner said. “He’s still trying to find a comfort zone there. The more reps he gets over there, the better he’ll be.”