With one move, the pressure on every Washington Nationals starter increased. The team placed ace Max Scherzer, a leading National League Cy Young Award contender, on the 10-day injured list Saturday with a mid-back strain. The 34-year-old right-hander was scheduled to start Tuesday in the series opener in Baltimore against the Orioles, but Manager Dave Martinez said Sunday the Nationals would use Austin Voth, the team’s latest fifth starter, in his spot. Still, the Nationals must make an important decision about Wednesday’s starter, a choice that will reverberate throughout the staff.
Martinez has been noncommittal on rotation strategy, but the Nationals essentially have two options Wednesday. They can use Monday’s day off to implement a four-man rotation and throw their top healthy starter, Stephen Strasburg, on regular rest. Or they can bring up another spot starter.
“After the game, I’ll sit down with [General Manager Mike Rizzo] and figure out what we’re going to do,” Martinez said Sunday morning.
It seems counterintuitive for the Nationals to burn Strasburg against the worst team in baseball rather than wait and use him against the National League East-leading Atlanta Braves, because as hot as the Nationals have been over the past 42 games, the Braves have remained almost in lockstep. The Nationals are seven games out of first place, and they have only gained 1½ games on the Braves since May 24. The Nationals could make up more ground in one series this weekend than they have in almost two months.
Yet Strasburg strongly prefers to remain on schedule. After the all-star break, the right-hander grumbled about the layoff changing his approach and degrading his stuff; “I’m really good when I have a routine,” he said. It would not be unimaginable for Strasburg to bristle at the suggestion of pushing his start back a day.
No matter which way the Nationals go with Wednesday’s starter, the situation poses trouble.
If it’s not Strasburg, consider the likeliest replacement options. The Nationals can ask Kyle McGowin, who is in the bullpen but hasn’t pitched in the season’s second half, to make an emergency start. Or they can call up Joe Ross, the starter flip-flopped back and forth from the bullpen, from Class AAA Fresno on regular rest. Or they can try Erick Fedde, who had the best stretch of any Nationals fifth starter this season and hasn’t pitched since July 2.
McGowin seems like a stretch because he hasn’t been preparing as a starter in the past week. Ross seems unlikely as well because the Nationals have apparently soured on calling up players from Fresno. The team decided to reassign several top prospects, including Fedde and Voth, from California to Class AA Harrisburg in Pennsylvania just after the all-star break.
Still, if the Nationals pick one of those three, they’re applying stress to their other pitchers.
“With the [starters] that we got, if they can give us [seven innings], the way our bullpen’s going right now, we can cover [six] outs,” Martinez said. “That’s what they’ve done, and it’s been good.”
Yet the common thread among them and Voth is that, at their best or worst, all struggle to get deep into games. In 10 major league starts this season, Voth, McGowin and Fedde pitched beyond the fifth inning three times. In seven minor league starts, Ross has done it once. When the Nationals lose Scherzer — a workhorse whose 129⅓ innings are second-most the National League — and turn to those replacements, they’re asking an already shaky bullpen to handle a heavier-than-normal workload.
Extra strain and reliance on the relievers after a starter struggles to go deep might be manageable once every five days, but any more than that becomes a more difficult proposition. We saw what happened this season when the fourth and fifth starters, Aníbal Sánchez and Jeremy Hellickson, regularly ended their outings in or after the fifth inning. The domino effect hurt the Nationals then, and it could again now because a taxed bullpen means limited room for error by the top three healthy starters: Strasburg, Sánchez and Patrick Corbin.
On Friday and Saturday night, the Philadelphia Phillies battled Strasburg and Corbin without their best stuff. They forced Corbin to throw 20 or more pitches in three innings, and each small situation, such as the left-hander jumping ahead of Jean Segura in the count 0-2 before walking him in the fourth inning, gets magnified because each pitch is more important. The Phillies also drove Strasburg’s pitch count to 96 after five innings, but the right-hander gutted out the sixth, finishing at 111. The bullpen breezed through the final three innings, but expecting similarly solid performances on every rotation turn is untenable for any team, much less one trying to stave off more than a half-dozen foes in a playoff race.
Even when the starters zip through the order, as Sánchez did Sunday, the rules of the NL sometimes force a team’s hand. By the sixth, Sánchez had allowed three runs, but he had thrown just 88 pitches and said he felt strong enough to pitch the seventh. Still, in the top of the inning, his spot in the order came up with two on and one out and his team down 3-1. The Nationals needed to pinch-hit for Sánchez to capitalize on the opportunity.
“It’s the National League at the end,” Sánchez said.
It’s also worth noting that, even if Strasburg pitches Wednesday, the Nationals still could need one of those three potential replacements during the Braves series. Scherzer is eligible to return from the IL on Saturday, and if he pitches that day, Voth could go on regular rest Sunday. But if Scherzer has a hiccup in his recovery, or if the Nationals decide to start their ace in the series finale on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball,” they would need either Voth on short rest or one of those three potential replacements Saturday.
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