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Washington Nationals’ Jefry Rodriguez focused on working changeup into mix

Jefry Rodriguez, 24, has an electric fastball and what his catcher, Spencer Kieboom, says is a plus-plus curve, and Rodriguez is trying to get comfortable throwing his changeup...

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

After tossing 4 23 scoreless against Atlanta in an emergency relief appearance in his MLB debut, Jefry Rodriguez made his first start against the Baltimore Orioles earlier this week giving up four hits, three walks, and five earned runs over five innings in a 9-7 win in which he received no decision.

“He’s got really good stuff,” Davey Martinez told reporters, when asked for his takeaway from the 24-year-old’s debut as a starter.

“He’s young. Like I said, we talked to him a lot about throwing strike one, and getting ahead of hitters. He had a lot of 2-2, 3-2 counts, made a couple mistakes, but I liked what I saw.

“He’s got electric stuff.”

In his second start tonight, the right-hander was going up against a patient Philadelphia Phillies’ lineup, looking to help the Nationals avoid a three-game sweep in Nationals Park.

The key for the right-hander, Martinez said before the game, would be pitch efficiency.

Philadelphia Phillies v Washington Nationals Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

“He’s got electric stuff, he really does,” the skipper reiterated.

“What I’d like to see improve is pitch efficiency, that’s the key, and if he can do that — if we can get six innings out of him, we’ll be in great shape. But he needs to throw strike one, he needs to be consistent with his fastball and we’ll go from there.”

Against the Phillies in particular, who, going in, had, as their pregame notes mentioned, “three players in the Top 10 in the majors in walk rate (Carlos Santana - 5th, 17.0%; Rhys Hoskins - 9th, 15.6%; and Cesar Hernandez -10th, 14.9 %); who led the majors in walk rate as a team, “... by a considerable margin (10.4 %, with the next-closest team at 9.9 %),” and also led in total walks (292), and were ranked second in pitches per plate appearance (4.03), pitch efficiency was going to be really important.

“They work counts, so he’s really got to concentrate on getting ahead,” Martinez continued, “... but like I said, for him it’s all about his pitch efficiency. If he can work ahead — think about him being 1-2, 0-2, as opposed to 2-0. I look at it [from] a hitter’s standpoint, when I was 0-2, a 96 mph fastball was 98-99, so you’re up there battling, so if he can get ahead, he’ll be in great shape.”

It also wouldn’t hurt if the rookie right-hander worked in a third (or fourth, really) pitch more regularly, after relying on his four-seamer (and sinker) and curve in his first two outings. His changeup was reportedly something that he focused on between the last start and tonight’s outing.

“He definitely feels comfortable throwing his curveball and fastball,” Martinez said. “He’s not very comfortable throwing his changeup. But his last bullpen he went out and worked on it, and it was a lot better, so if he can throw it, you don’t have to throw it a bunch, but if he can throw it that’s just another pitch hitters have to worry about.”

Rodriguez threw the changeup just 13 times in his first two outings, seven times against the Braves, and six times against the Orioles, relying on his four-seamer (83 of 159 pitches), his curveball (34, with just one hit off it, and six of his strikeouts with it), and his sinker (29).

Nationals’ catcher Spencer Kieboom, who was behind the plate for each of those outings, talked before tonight’s finale with the Phillies about the pitch selection in those games.

“What we saw in each of those outings just kind of [decided] what we were throwing,” he explained.

“We’ve been throwing [the change] in the bullpen and it’s been looking really sharp in there, so I’m excited to see him use it tonight.”

Is it just a matter of getting Rodriguez comfortable with it, getting him to trust the pitch?

“You could say that,” Kieboom said, “at the same time it’s also matchups. He has a great fastball, so to shy away from that is something I don’t think he wants to do and anybody else wants to do.

“He’s had a really good curveball, and for two outings I think he’s done a pretty good job.”

Rodriguez’s curve, Kieboom continued, is, “... sharp. It’s not loopy. It’s a plus-plus pitch in my opinion, and using that for him is going to be great, and like I said, tonight integrating that changeup is going to be a really big part of his game plan.”

Pedro Severino was behind the plate for start No. 2 (and appearance No. 3) for Rodriguez, who threw four changes in the first, three of them for balls, one fouled off, in a scoreless, 23-pitch frame.

The second was a mix of fastballs (two and four-seam) and curves, a 24-pitch inning which saw the Phillies’ patience on display, but he retired the side in order, and the third was the same (all fast and breaking balls), with the opposing pitcher, Nick Pivetta singling on a 94 mph 1-1 fastball low and in, and Rhys Hoskins hitting an 0-1 fastball out to right field for an opposite field, two-run home run that put the Phillies up, 2-0. Rodriguez’s 19-pitch frame pushed him up to 66 after three.

The fourth, Rodriguez’s shortest to that point, was curveball-heavy, with nine of 15 pitches curves (and the rest fastballs) as he worked around a single and a double for a scoreless inning that left him at 81 pitches overall.

Rodriguez returned to the mound in the top of the fifth, after a 30-minute-ish rain delay in the bottom of the fourth, and issued a leadoff walk to Cesar Hernandez, then hit Philly left fielder Rhys Hoskins before he was lifted with two on and no one out.

His last inning on the hill was all fastballs and curves again...

Sammy Solis took over and got up 1-2 on Odubel Herrera, but gave up a two-run triple to right that added two runs to Rodriguez’s line.

Jefry Rodriguez’s Line: 4.0 IP, 5 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 3 BB, 3 Ks, 1 HR, 96 P, 60 S, 3/2 GO/FO.

“He’s got good stuff, he really does,” Martinez said, after what ended an 8-6 win when the Nationals rallied to take the lead in the eighth.

“When he learns how to throw strike one, get ahead, and finish, he’s going to help us win a lot of games.”

In addition to first pitch strikes, and put away pitches, Rodriguez is determined to get that changeup in to the mix.

“I felt good with it,” he said through an interpreter after the start. “I was fortunate enough to get it in a couple counts in my favor to be able to use the changeup, therefore I used it, and I’ve got to get better at it and use it more, that’s why I was trying to use it tonight a lot more often because I have to use it a lot more.”