Evan Lee, 24, and a 2018 15th Round pick by Washington’s Nationals, got the call to make his MLB debut earlier this month after starting the season at Double-A Harrisburg, where he’d put up a 3.60 ERA, 3.57 FIP, 15 walks (4.50 BB/9), and 37 Ks (11.10 K/9) in seven starts and 30 IP before making his first big league start on June 1st in New York (NL).
He had enough presence of mind, to (take some good advice and) look around in Citi Field during his first major league outing so he could appreciate where he was and all the work it took to get there.
“I got some really good advice before the game to take a moment to really look around,” Lee said, as quoted by MASN’s Mark Zuckerman:
“When you toe that rubber, just look around and admire being there on that big league mound, that I would never forget it. And I can’t thank them enough for that, because it was special to achieve a lifelong dream, and to go out and have some success. I wish I had a couple pitches back from the outing, and there were a couple batters I feel like I fell behind when I needed to get ahead in some certain scenarios. But as far as a first debut, I’ll take it.”
Lee gave up four hits, three walks, and two earned runs in the start against the Mets, and he showed enough for the club to keep him around, though there were questions about where he’d work, whether in the bullpen or rotation.
“Lee will, if we need him, will pitch out of the bullpen. It is his bullpen day. So we’re not gonna get him to throw a bullpen, he’ll pitch out of the bullpen and then we’ll go from there,” Martinez explained three days after Lee’s initial outing.
His next appearances was in a relief role, throwing 1 2⁄3 scoreless innings against the Marlins on the road in Miami on June 7th.
“He was good,” Martinez said after the 26-pitch outing. “I mean, he came in, like I said, a tough batter, struck him out, and then gave up a hit, but he settled down and got some big outs, so it was nice to see him go out there. He hasn’t pitched in a while, but we wanted to get him out there, we wanted to make sure we kept him a little bit stretched out, but he did well.”
The fifth-year skipper was asked that night how he was balancing the need for a left-hander in the bullpen with Lee’s continued development, and whether the one-time reliever turned starter again in 2021 was handling the big league assignment.
“I definitely got to keep an eye on how we use him, what we do, but it was nice to get him out there today and get a couple innings out of him. Talked to him afterwards and he said he felt great, so that’s good,” Martinez said.
While he was waiting to see how he’d be used in his third appearance, Martinez had the left-handed pitcher hanging with other members of the rotation in the dugout so he could start getting comfortable with everyone on the team and learn some things from the other arms during games and between starts.
“He’s done really well,” Martinez said this past weekend. “He’s prepared himself. The other day — [Pitching Coach Jim] Hickey has done a really good job of getting these guys to understand what may happen, what may transpire. If you guys noticed, the other day in Miami, [Lee] threw a bullpen [during] the game, threw about 25-30 pitches just to keep him going. We tell him all the time, with everything going on, especially this next week, that anything can happen, so he’s well aware of that, we’re making sure that he stays sharp, but he’s been good. He came in in Miami and threw the ball well, really well. So, but he gets it. He’s learning a lot. Yesterday we had him sit in the dugout just so he could watch and learn, and if we need him out of the bullpen, he could go down there, run down there and get ready. But I wanted him to watch, listen, sit amongst the starting pitchers, and listen to them talk and stuff. He was very in-tune to the game yesterday, so it was good to see.”
Martinez said the southpaw, who’s quiet by nature, has started to get a bit more comfortable.
“He is very quiet,” the manager said. “You’ll have to talk to him. But that’s how he is. We knew that even in Spring Training. Very ... he’s quiet in a way, but he’s got that sneaky intensity, he’s always fired up, ready to go all the time. I like that. The quiet ones for me are the ones you really got to watch out for. But he’s that guy. When he’s called upon to pitch, as you can tell, he gets the ball and wants to go, go, go, go. And I like that as well. I tell him sometimes you got to slow your tempo down a little bit, and engage in the situation, but I like the fact that he wants to get the ball and get to that next pitch.
“But he’s a good kid, he really is, and he’s eager to learn as much as he can. He says he’s here, he wants to stay here, he wants to learn as much as he can, but he understands what is going on and his role, so he’s ready for anything.”
Martinez had to choose between Lee and veteran Paolo Espino for a spot start in the series finale with the Milwaukee Brewers in D.C. last Sunday, and he opted for Espino, but the lefty came out of the pen again and gave up three hits and two runs (on a two-run home run by Willy Adames, who crushed a 93 MPH 2-2 fastball that didn’t quite get outside). Lee also got hit in the leg by a comebacker, but argued to stay in the game and finished the inning.
“He got smoked by a line drive,” Martinez said.
“He’s doing well. He’s a little sore, but everything’s good. He’s going to be bruised up for a couple days.”
“He could have gone a little bit longer,” the manager added, but, “once he sat down, he got really sore, so we wanted to get him out of there and get treatment.”
Martinez told reporters he’s adjusted well to the move to the bullpen.
“He’s been good. Like I said, he’s been throwing bullpens in-between, and throwing lengthy bullpens so we keep him stretched out, but he’s been good.”
As for what, if any, growth he’s seen from Lee?
“He works hard, he pays attention to detail,” Martinez said. “He has a plan on what he wants to do when he goes out there, and he attacks the hitters. He’s very competitive. As you can see, he gets the ball, gets on the mound, and is ready to go again. That’s just his nature. When I went out there to see how he was doing [after the comebacker], he was adamant about finishing the inning. He said, ‘My leg’s getting numb, but I think I can finish.’ And I said, ‘Well, why don’t you throw some balls first and see and we’ll see where you’re at.’ But he threw the ball well and he looked at me and he says ‘I got it.’ And I said, ‘Okay.’ And he did. He finished the inning. So, but as he came in I had Hickey go talk to him, and he said, ‘I’m pretty sore.’ So I said, good, let’s get him out. But he did well.”
He’s also a bit strong-headed, apparently, as Martinez explained when he talked about that pitch Adames hit out on him.
“He said he was trying to get the ball up and he didn’t, he threw it down. He claims it was his mistake,” Martinez said with a laugh, “and I said, ‘Hey, you’ll learn by it and just move on. Just understand that I’m glad you had a plan, and it just didn’t work out at that moment, but other than that, it was effective.”
Martinez noted on Thursday, in announcing how he’d use his pitchers, Lee included, in this weekend’s series with the Philadelphia Phillies, that the club would continue using the lefty out of the bullpen, and eventually work him into the rotation.
“We’re trying to do that with Evan like now, and he’s been, like I said, he’s been really good,” Martinez explained. “If he was not pitching, we’d let him throw a bullpen in-between. When we think we’re going to use him as we are this weekend, we kind of tell him to lay off the bullpen a little bit and be ready to pitch. But we feel like he can pitch 2-3 innings if need be. And he could have done that the other day if he didn’t get hit with that line drive, so I’m just glad he came out of that okay.”
“We’re kind of grooming him,” the Nats’ manager continued, “and putting him in situations where we feel like he’s going to succeed, and it’s been a lot of conversations with him. Like I said, he’s learned a lot since he’s been here, and he’s just open to doing whatever we ask him to do, but I told him, I said, ‘Look, you’ve got good stuff, he’s been working on Hickey on a bunch of different things, but he’s learning a lot, and I really believe that he’s going to be a good one, and we just want to make sure we take our time with him.”
Unfortunately, all the care they were taking with him didn’t keep him from an issue with his left shoulder. A run scored with the lefty on the mound in the sixth, and he came back out for the seventh, but struggled with his command, throwing eight-straight balls with the last two well wide of the target on either side of the plate to the point he drew his manager and trainer out to the mound to make sure he was okay. Lee left the game at that point, and his manager said after the game they were getting his shoulder checked out.
“We got him some X-rays. Negative. We’re going to try to get him an MRI,” Martinez said.
“He says he doesn’t really feel anything, but we want to make sure there’s nothing in there. I just want to be very cautious with him.
“When he misses the strike zone like that, I thought there was something wrong with him, so we’re going to check him out.”
“He’s going to get [an MRI] on the shoulder. We’re trying to get him in as soon as possible. We might not be able to today, so we’ll see.”