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Zach Davies enters the race for a spot in the Nationals’ rotation

Zach Davies enters the race for a spot in the Nationals’ rotation

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Spring training games provide opportunities for players to test their offseason adjustments. So for the Washington Nationals’ Zach Davies on Saturday night, the pitcher’s mound was his laboratory.

The experiment? Where Davies was standing on the rubber. He has done this before, and it’s not uncommon for pitchers to tinker with their positioning on the mound. Last season, as a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks, the 31-year-old right-hander stood toward the third base side of the rubber. But this spring, Davies has focused on standing closer to the first base side in hopes of improving the effectiveness of his sinker, which he heavily relies on.

“Over the course of your career, your stuff changes a little bit,” Davies said. “You might still be, deep down, the same pitcher. But movement profiles change a little bit, velocity changes a little bit. Your body changes where there’s minor adjustments that can be made to help you.”

The Nationals could enter their 2024 campaign with the same starting rotation as last season. But if those minor adjustments lead to better results, Davies could give them another option.

When Davies stood closer to third base last year, he tried to pitch away from right-handed hitters and in to left-handed hitters. The hope was that he could steal strikes on the outside corner with the sinker, but the pitch looked like a ball leaving his hand.

Moving to the other side of the rubber should change the path of the ball and make it look more like a strike when he releases it. The sinker would stay in the strike zone longer and hopefully generate softer contact after opponents hit .381 with a .552 slugging percentage, both career highs, against it.

“I think in the past, I’ve tried to chase strikeouts a little bit too much, tried to get swing and miss too much because that’s the name of the game now,” said Davies, who had a 7.00 ERA in 18 starts for the Diamondbacks last season. “And that’s not who I am.”

On Saturday, Davies struck out the first five hitters he faced in a split-squad game against Miami, including three swinging. He was charged with three runs on three hits, all singles, and two walks. Davies said he felt a bit out of sorts from the stretch, something he attributes to his new location on the mound, but he plans to iron that out in bullpen sessions ahead of his next start Thursday.

“I know what he can do; he’s a crafty veteran,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “He understands how to pitch. He doesn’t give in. Sometimes you need a guy like that in your rotation. So he’s pitching for a starter spot in our rotation.”

Martinez elaborated on the Nationals’ rotation by saying there’s a “couple of guys that are solidified, but there’s still some spots.” Josiah Gray, MacKenzie Gore and Patrick Corbin — Washington’s Opening Day starter the past two seasons — are virtual locks, leaving two openings. Jake Irvin, the Nationals’ best pitcher in the second half of 2023, should get in. Corbin, Gore and Irvin are scheduled to start the next three days.

Righty Trevor Williams held the last spot a season ago, and the Nationals have good reason to give him another shot in the second season of his two-year, $13 million deal. But Davies still has a chance. So do righties Jackson Rutledge and Joan Adon. And Cade Cavalli should be in the rotation once he returns from Tommy John surgery. He hasn’t pitched in a game at camp and probably will return this summer.

Martinez’s message at the end of last season was that Williams, who got through six innings only seven times, would be a starter for the team in 2024. He said that despite Williams’s struggles transitioning back to being a full-time starter — a 5.55 ERA and a 1.60 WHIP over 30 starts that included a drop in velocity as the year progressed. But Martinez’s tune changed during the offseason.

“Right now, Trevor — he’s our fourth, fifth starter,” Martinez said at the winter meetings in December. “We’ll see what transpires over the winter.”

Very little did transpire. The Nationals didn’t sign a starter to a major league contract despite General Manager Mike Rizzo’s stated desire to upgrade the rotation. Williams, who reported late to camp after the birth of his fifth child, has seen mixed results in his two outings this spring: two scoreless innings in his debut, then five runs on eight hits in the Nationals’ other split-squad game Saturday against the Houston Astros. Spring training results often are magnified when a player struggled the season before.

Williams, in theory, could be a long reliever. He has done it before, though he joined the Nationals to avoid that role. The Nationals don’t have a true long reliever, as Paolo Espino and Cory Abbott have been in years past. So while Williams still seems like the favorite for the fifth spot, the Nationals have choices.

“We’re still in the middle of spring training,” Martinez said. “We’re going to play this out, and we’ll see where we are at the end.”

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