These are strange and sometimes scary times for many due to the pandemic – but an unusual Major League season has created an opportunity for young pitcher Jackson Rutledge.
The Nationals’ top pick in the 2019 First-Year Player draft, Rutledge, 21, had already been able to spend time with veteran pitchers Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin in late January and early February before spring training even began in West Palm Beach.
“I went down early got used to be in the facility every day and throwing outside, which was nice,” Rutledge told Federal Baseball on Wednesday. “It was pretty exciting to watch and learn how they go about their business. I didn’t want to bother them while they got their work in. I think the thing that stood out was the focus they had. They kind of did it in a different way. They were very focused on every single pitch in the bullpen. Their movement and consistency was as good as it would be in the middle of a game.”
Now, the right-hander from Texas is part of the 60-player pool in Fredericksburg, Virginia while pitching on a regular basis.
“He fits the mold of what we look for in a starting pitcher,” said Mark Scialabba, assistant general manager, player development, for the Nationals. “He knows his body, he knows his strengths. He really has an elite fastball. He is going to be someone that could be an impact starter for us in the front of the rotation if everything comes together.”
A year ago this time he was pitching for the low Single-A Hagerstown Suns of the South Atlantic League. This August, he is competing in intrasquad games about every fifth day and has faced Major League veterans such as Andrew Stevenson, Jake Noll and Brandon Snyder. Rutledge also got to pitch to Luis Garcia before the infielder made his Major League debut last weekend.
“Some of the positives: it is a very controlled environment,” Rutledge said. “You are getting your work in. There are no excuses (like) we had a nine-hour bus ride the night before. There is none of that. You are facing some of the same hitters over and over again. By the fifth time through the lineup, they have seen me several times that day plus the times before.”
Rutledge is one of just a handful of players in the 60-player pool who was with Hagerstown at some point last season – others include catcher Israel Pineda, who came to the alternate camp last weekend, and lefty pitcher Tim Cate, who began last year with the Suns then advanced to high Single-A Potomac.
The Nationals will need a starter on Saturday for a scheduled doubleheader at home with the Marlins.
While Wil Crowe and Ben Braymer would seem like possible starters, Washington manager Dave Martinez was asked on Wednesday about the possibility of Rutledge filling that role.
“I think right now I’d say no. We want him to keep developing. He’s doing well,” Martinez said from Atlanta on Wednesday. “The biggest thing with Jackson is throwing consistent strikes. He’s got unbelievable stuff, we want him to be more consistent in the strike zone. And he’s getting better. He’s definitely getting better. We’re keeping a close eye on him. I mean, who knows, he might be a guy in September when things get cooking here, really cooking, that he could come up and help us, whether it’s a start or bullpen or something like that, so we’ll see.”
Rutledge has seen pitchers Seth Romero and Dakota Bacus, who had been at the alternate site, make their MLB debuts this month.
“We take that mindset that any day we could be called up and any day we have to be ready for [it]. Yes, absolutely, I would be ready for it,” Rutledge said when asked if he would be ready for a spot start in the majors. “I am in the mindset if I would be called up tomorrow I would be ready to go. That is how we are prepared.”
Bacus, 29, made his MLB debut this past weekend in Baltimore. “He has been working on this for years and years,” Rutledge said of the former Indiana State pitcher.
Rutledge was the top pick of Washington last June out of a junior college in Texas.
After he signed, he made one start in the Gulf Coast League and then three for Auburn of the short-season New York-Penn League before heading to Hagerstown. In six starts with the Suns, the 6-foot-8 hurler was 2-0 with an ERA of 2.30 as he allowed just 14 hits in 27.1 innings. He had 31 strikeouts and 11 walks while at Hagerstown, and overall he was 2-0, 3.13 with a WHIP of 0.99 in his first 10 pro outings.
After the shutdown, Rutledge worked out an indoor facility in St. Louis. The native of Missouri was able to work out with some members of the Cardinals as well as lefty pitcher Ross Detwiler, a Missouri State University product who was drafted in the first round out of college by the Nationals and is now pitching for the White Sox. “I got to talk to him a lot. He taught me a few things,” Rutledge said of Detwiler, who was with the Nationals from 2007-14.
Most likely he would have pitched with Hagerstown or Single-A Advanced Fredericksburg of the Carolina League this season.
Instead, he sees some of the same batters on a regular basis in Fredericksburg.
“He is taking advantage of the opportunities to grow and learn,” said Scialabba. “He has an impressive work ethic. He is very cerebral; he always wants to continue to learn. We just need to continue to harness his focus to build on his foundation. We are excited about the development he has made in a short period of time.”
“He is basically, at this point, he is developing as a starting pitcher,” Scialabba added. “He is pitching every fifth day. He can go up to 90 pitches or so. In his last outing (Monday) he was extremely efficient. He was under 60 pitches in five innings, which is really impressive since he sees the same hitters over and over. His strike efficiency was at its best in all of the starts. He is really learning how to use his changeup and curveball as well. He has primarily pitched with his fastball and slider – two pitches that are well above average. I know he wants to become a complete pitcher. We are going to make sure he works on all four pitches.”
Rutledge, after a freshman season at Arkansas and a year of junior college in Texas as a sophomore, had committed to the University of Kentucky before signing with Washington. Now he is soaking up pro baseball around players with Major League experience.
“What is great about this is it is very much a team environment,” Scialabba added of the alternate site. “Everyone is trying to help each other. All of these players are extremely competitive. For some, it is more about development. They all want the opportunity to be called up. He is taking full advantage to learn from the hitters and pitchers.”
Rutledge spends time in his hotel room when he is not at the stadium in Fredericksburg.
“The big factor for me right now is focusing and improving on that fastball command,” he said. “It is not necessarily been my strong point in the past. But it is something I can improve and have improved on.”