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Cade Cavalli gets plenty of help in losing his major league debut

The youngest Washington Nationals need a lot more work to stay in MLB, let alone become stars

Cincinnati Reds v Washington Nationals Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Welcome to the big leagues, Cade Cavalli.

The Washington Nationals’ 2020 first round draft pick and more than 31,000 fans at Nats Park on Friday night hoped he’d be the first Washington pitcher since Stephen Strasburg in 2009 to win his major league debut.

But the 24-year-old right-hander instead took the team’s 42nd straight turn by a starter without getting a win in a 7-3 loss to the Cincinnati Reds, while continuing a streak of Nats’ pitchers who came away from their MLB debuts without a “Curly W.”

The rest of the team’s young core, catcher Kiebert Ruiz, shortstop CJ Abrams, and second baseman Luis García, offered plenty of help in Cavalli’s first career loss, showing they, too, need a lot of work to stay in the major leagues, let alone become the stars we’re hoping for.

Manager Davey Martinez was satisfied with his rookie starter, shrugging off inexperience.

“It’s just about pitch count, right? Throwing strikes, getting ahead of hitters, a couple plays we should have made behind him we didn’t,” Martinez said. “For a first day, I know the jitters where there, but I thought his stuff was good, and he’s going to do well. So we’ll get him out there again in five days and we’ll see what happens.”

Cavalli’s first 4 13 innings in the bigs were a bit prettier than his line in the boxscore showing six hits, two walks and seven earned runs.

He probably also hoped he wouldn't hit three batters — two in his first two innings — and might have hoped to come away from the outing with an ERA lower than 14.54, but it wasn’t all his fault.

Martinez said he spoke with Cavalli about mistakes, but he attributed them all to normal jitters.

“He hit some batters with a curveball at two strikes. Those things can be cleaned up, obviously,” the manager said. “For me, those balls — slipped out of his hand a little bit. But we’ll clean that up.

“Regardless of what they tell you, the nerves are there, right?” said Martinez. “He wants to impress. He wants to show that he belongs here, so, baby steps.”

Two of Cavalli’s seven earned runs came after a generous, two-out hit ruling when new first baseman Luke Voit couldn't dig out a wide, running, cross-body throw from Abrams on a grounder up the middle.

The throw beat Donovan Solano to the bag by steps, but it skipped foul, where Cavalli alertly fielded his position, but the play scored Jonathan India, who was hit by a pitch and took second on a passed ball.

“We want to get [Abrams] to start spinning around, not trying to throw across his body. That’s something that they’re going to work with him on. He’s not very comfortable doing it, but they think it’s going to help him out a lot better,” said Martinez.

The fifth, sixth, and seventh runs charged to Cavalli scored after he left the bases loaded with India, Solano, and TJ Friedl, and Aristides Aquino doubled off Erasmo Ramírez to bring them all in.

The last of those came after Abrams’ relay throw to the plate sailed by Ruiz to the blue stone wall.

“He probably shouldn’t have thrown,” Martinez lamented. “But like I said, he’s young, he’s fired up, he wants to make all the plays. So that’s something that we’ll have to talk to him about and get him used to not doing, just throwing the ball just to throw it.”

Two errors on the night have Abrams with eight in 56 games this season, four in 10 games with the Nats.

Martinez said the miscues didn’t bother Cavalli.

“He never brought it up. He never mentioned it. He went back and got to that next hitter, which was really nice to see,” said Martinez.

Most of the hits Cavalli surrendered were hard shots. Three of them banged off the wall in right-center field field, where Victor Robles could only play the caroms, throw, and hope young relay men Abrams and García could catch a runner at the plate.

But Cavalli also turned in two scoreless innings, facing only three batters in each.

He finished the second inning by working perfectly with Ruiz on an 0-2 fastball to catch Stuart Fairchild on his first career steal attempt, and he tossed nine pitches in a 1-2-3 fourth.

“He went right after the hitters,” Martinez said. “He’s got a slider too, and I think they switched from the curveball to the slider a little bit, and that was effective. Those are the innings that we’ll gradually see more and more of once he gets out there more.”

Cavalli struck out six batters using a sweeping curveball and a changeup that tailed away from right-handed hitters.

“What I really want him to do is really establish his fastball, not rely so much on his breaking balls, attack with his fastball a little bit and then utilize his breaking balls throughout the count,” said Martinez. “I think that’s just a minor adjustment.”

Despite waking only two batters, Cavalli struggled to control his curve and a fastball that hit 97 mph, scooping dirt off the mound between pitches to dry an apparently sweaty pitching hand.

“It looked like he had a little bit of trouble gripping, “said Martinez. “We’ll talk to him about that too, but that’s something that he really has to get over, because it’s going to be hot. We play in the summertime.”

Cavalli faced 23 hitters, throwing 57 of his 99 pitches for strikes.

To go with his errors, Abrams went 0-for-4 in his fourth home game as a National, dropping his line to .221/.272/.567, and left two men on base.

“He’s got so much range,” said Martinez, brushing off the mistakes. “I love the fact that he cuts so many balls off up the middle because of his angles, but he’s going to be good.”

García, in his first game off the injured list, and 30-year-old rookie Joey Meneses had RBI singles for the Nats, and Voit hit a solo homer in the sixth, his 17th of the year and fourth with Washington.

The rest of the Nats’ lineup managed six hits in seven innings against veteran lefty Mike Minor and two more against the Cincinnati bullpen.

“We’re falling behind a lot. We’re hitting a lot with two strikes. We got to get back on the fastballs and be ready to hit and stay in the middle in the field,” said Martinez.

The Nats’ new double-play combination, Abrams and García, didn’t turn any, although Abrams stifled a throw rather than risk an error after Garcia tossed it to him following a charging play on Solano’s grounder in the fifth.

García made a nifty shovel to Voit for an out after ranging to his left to field an eighth-inning grounder from Fairchild. He also stole his second base of the season.

“I liked seeing them,” said Martinez. “The future is bright, right, for us up the middle right now. It will take some time. The timing of the one double play wasn’t quite there, but I think once they get used to playing with one another it will get better.”

But the early mistakes and rookie shakes were enough to make Cavalli the 14th straight Nationals’ starter to lose his major league debut.

Before the game, Nationals radio broadcaster Dave Jageler tweeted the list of the previous 13: Yunesky Maya, Tommy Milone, Taylor Jordan, Nathan Karns, A.J. Cole, Joe Ross, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, Erick Fedde, Wil Crowe, Joan Adon, Evan Lee, and Jackson Tetreault.

It’s still unknown if Cavalli will be compared to the worst or even the best of that group, but he and the rest of the youngsters the Nationals are touting as future stars have plenty of work cut out for them.