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As Matt Cronin thrives in Harrisburg, the Nats won’t rush the process

Matt Cronin has been lights out for the Class AA Harrisburg Senators this season. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
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Reliever Matt Cronin has pitched on 14 dates for the Class AA Harrisburg Senators this spring. The whole list — April 9, April 14, April 17, April 20, April 24, April 29, May 1, May 5, May 8, May 12, May 15, May 18, May 21 and May 22 — tells a story on its own. Notice the consistent gaps until Cronin went back-to-back for the first time this past weekend? Or how, early on, coaches gave three or four days of rest to a lefty sidelined for parts of 2021 with shoulder issues?

Here’s the careful plan for a pitcher who entered Thursday with a 0.00 ERA in 16⅓ innings.

“We won’t abuse anyone in the process of learning their skill,” De Jon Watson, the Washington Nationals’ director of player development, said of Cronin’s workload. “Our job is to get him ready for the majors and get him there in one piece. It’s twofold. Now, if we feel someone is on the verge of going to the big leagues, you’ll see them getting more back-to-backs, or maybe get one out and come back the next day and pitch the full inning. There’s a progression we’ll follow no matter how good his numbers are.”

The Nationals picked Cronin, 24, in the fourth round of the 2019 draft. But unlike many professional relievers, he pitched out of the bullpen in all three seasons at the University of Arkansas. He hasn’t started a game since high school. As a result, he has spent years honing his four-seam fastball and curve, considering any third pitch an added bonus.

Once in a while, Cronin has mixed in what pitching coordinator Sam Narron calls a split-finger change-up. Otherwise, he has dominated with high heaters and a sharp breaking ball. His velocity is in the low-to-mid 90s, ticking back to normal. Opposing hitters have a batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage slash line of .096/.203/.096. That identical batting and slugging percentage means Cronin has only allowed singles — just five of them — while striking out 22 and walking seven.

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He has been nearly unhittable. The question, then, is when Cronin might advance to the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings and beyond. And does Narron ever feel an itch to test him sooner than planned?

“Of course you do,” Narron said. “Plus, no one wants the ball more than Matty and guys in his situation. He really wants to pitch. But you explain to them that there’s a process, and we’re going to keep following it. I love what he’s doing. He’s been exceptional so far this year.”

Minor league success isn’t new for Cronin. After he was drafted in 2019, he posted a 0.82 ERA in 22 innings for the low-Class A Hagerstown Suns. Last season, he started with the high-Class A Wilmington Blue Rocks, excelled for 14 innings and was promoted to Harrisburg, where he struggled in a small sample and spent weeks on the injured list.

Mostly, though, he’s been equally tough on left- and right-handed hitters. If that continues, he could become the Nationals’ first homegrown lefty reliever since Matt Grace and Sammy Solís. Grace, drafted by Washington in the eighth round in 2010, debuted at 26 in April 2015. Solís, drafted in the second round in 2010, had his first outing at 26 in April 2015, too. Neither is still pitching in professional baseball. Cronin, who turns 25 in September, could reach the majors quicker than both of them.

“It’s going to be a fine line of what’s too much and what’s just enough,” Narron said of building Cronin’s innings. “Our goal is to test these guys in a way they will eventually be at the next level. If they face a team three times in a six-game series in the minors, that’s sort of like seeing an NL East opponent a bunch in the same month or getting called on twice in a weekend up in Washington. A lot of thought goes into how we bring them along.”

Some other updates from the Nationals’ system:

Mason Denaburg: On Wednesday, Denaburg started for the low-Class A Fredericksburg Nationals, making his first professional appearance since Aug. 3, 2019. The righty has been plagued by injuries since he was drafted by the Nationals in the first round of the 2018 draft. Most recently, he recovered from undergoing Tommy John surgery 14 months ago. In his season debut, he touched 95 mph but found trouble right away. His final line included two innings, four hits, four earned runs, four walks and a strikeout on 52 pitches. …

Luis García: The 22-year-old returned for Class AAA Rochester after hyperextending his left arm in a fall at first base Tuesday. Kept at Rochester to refine his defense at shortstop, García entered Thursday’s start with a .331/.387/.576 slash line in 168 plate appearances. That accounts for eight homers, four triples and five doubles, showing he has solved most pitchers below the major leagues.