ARLINGTON, Tex. — Back in early March, before Major League Baseball returned from its lockout, the Washington Nationals’ projected rotation was Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Josiah Gray, Joe Ross and Erick Fedde. Later that month, once Ross had a bone spur removed from his throwing elbow, a spot opened for Josh Rogers or Aníbal Sánchez, whom the club signed to a minor league contract. But as camp closed, Strasburg needed more time — then more time, then more time — and Sánchez suffered a neck injury, Joan Adon entered the mix, and Rogers was briefly bumped to the minors.
Notice that Jackson Tetreault was in exactly zero of those plans. The 26-year-old righty was not invited to major league spring training. A seventh-round pick in 2017, he was at risk of fading from the picture altogether. But when the Nationals needed a spot starter for Strasburg on June 14, Tetreault was on schedule with the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings. He was, more than anything, the most logical choice to fill in. Had he gone straight back down after facing the Atlanta Braves, it would have felt like the normal course of midseason business.
Yet after stumbling in that debut, Tetreault has reached the seventh in back-to-back outings. At Globe Life Field on Sunday, he recorded 18 outs against the Texas Rangers, pacing the Nationals (27-48) to a 6-4 win. And afterward, Manager Dave Martinez made a fairly obvious statement, one Tetreault may be inclined to replay once or twice.
“He’s going to stay,” Martinez said. “He’s going to get an opportunity to pitch every five days.”
Yes, Tetreault earned that nod by clicking against the Rangers and Philadelphia Phillies. But the Nationals are also far shorter on starters than they expected. Ross underwent his second Tommy John surgery this month. Strasburg is experiencing more complications from his surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome, officially on the injured list with a stress reaction between the second and third ribs on the right side of his body. Adon, 23, was demoted June 8 after posting a 6.95 ERA in 12 outings (though he did pass through D.C. again to start in a recent doubleheader). Then Evan Lee, Adon’s sort-of replacement, made four appearances before going on the 15-day IL with a left flexor strain.
That has left Gray, Corbin, Fedde, Tetreault and Paolo Espino in the rotation. Lately, Gray, Fedde, Tetreault and Espino have been some of the team’s best players. Tetreault is 6-foot-5 with a mid-90s fastball. In Sunday’s series finale with the Rangers, his four-seamer touched 97.4 mph and dipped to 92.8. He threw it 54 times with 37 cutters, accounting for 91 of his 99 pitches. The others were curves (five) and change-ups (three).
Before the Rangers scored in the seventh Sunday, Tetreault had not allowed an earned run in 14 consecutive innings. The Nationals, deep in last place, have been able to test him because they’re rebuilding, their sights set on competing … in some year that’s not now. And if Tetreault develops into a back-of-the-rotation starter — or even someone the team can rely on to swing between the majors and minors, eating innings as he goes — it would be a win for an organization lacking solid homegrown arms.
“This kid comes up here, and he’s very much under control,” Martinez said. “He’s got a good idea of what he wants to do.”
Against the Braves in his debut, he was mostly four-seam/cutter and yielded seven runs on nine hits in four innings. The Rangers have a much worse lineup than the Braves. Moving forward, Tetreault will almost certainly have to throw more off-speed pitches, especially facing batters for a second or third time in the same game. But the two-pitch mix was effective against Texas’s aggressive order. Knowing the Rangers may try to pounce on early-count fastballs, Tetreault flipped between his four-seamer and cutter to keep them off-balance.
The two heaters tunnel together, meaning they follow a similar path to the plate out of his hand. The difference, though, is that the cutter eventually breaks in on lefties and away from righties. The four-seamer has a touch of run in the other direction. Watch Tetreault’s first and third appearances, and there’s already a ton of growth. He seems way more comfortable pounding those pitches in the strike zone. So far, that has him on the right track.
“In my debut, I was being a little picky, trying to hit corners in 0-0 counts and stuff and falling behind,” Tetreault said Sunday. “If you fall behind to a big league lineup, you’re going to get in some trouble. So just using all my pitches in the zone early to try to get that strikeout and strike two. Once you get that, it becomes a lot more manageable to get big league hitters out.”