Nationals’ Cade Cavalli makes MLB debut vs. Reds

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In the ideal version of Cade Cavalli’s major league debut, maybe Luke Voit knocks down a bouncing throw from shortstop CJ Abrams in the first inning, keeping a run from crossing home. Maybe, then, Cavalli carries a small groove into the second because maybe TJ Friedl’s RBI double never happens and he walks to the dugout unscathed.

Maybe he doesn’t throw another curveball that plunks a batter. Maybe, just maybe, the Cincinnati Reds don’t pound back-to-back doubles in the third inning, tilting the scoreboard in the wrong direction.

Maybe Cavalli, the Washington Nationals’ top pitching prospect, leads his team to a win.

But on Friday, in front of a big crowd by this year’s standards, Cavalli began his career with some bad and good in a 7-3 loss to the Reds. Abrams’s throw, which could have ended the first, skipped past Voit, and a run came in. Cavalli’s curve, the secondary pitch he used most, was erratic early, leading to two free passes and a spiked pitch count that finished at 99 in 4⅓ innings. The third inning brought those doubles from Kyle Farmer and Donovan Solano, batting third and fourth in a mostly unrecognizable Reds order.

On Cavalli’s final line: 13 outs, six hits, three hit batters, two walks and seven earned runs, the last three scoring after he left the bases loaded for Erasmo Ramírez in the fifth. The highlights: six strikeouts, a one-two-three fourth and a nimble play when Voit bounced a flip to Cavalli at first. From here, Cavalli, 24, has a month to sharpen his command. And that he will do that in Washington is no small deal, especially for a rebuilding club that has penciled him in as a cornerstone.

“You can’t really judge a kid’s first outing, because I know that regardless of what they tell you, the nerves are there, right?” Manager Dave Martinez said. “He wants to impress. He wants to show that he belongs here. So baby steps, but I thought the stuff was really good.”

The liftoff was not smooth. But it came on a night with 24-year-old Keibert Ruiz catching, 21-year-old Abrams at shortstop and 22-year-old Luis García returning from the injured list to play second.

To make room for Cavalli, the Nationals optioned right-hander Cory Abbott to the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings. To clear space for García, they released third baseman Maikel Franco on his 30th birthday. Washington (42-84) is trying to build its next contender straight up the middle. Cavalli figures to be a big part of that, even if he couldn’t limit the Reds (49-75) and an offense that entered 23rd in the majors in on-base-plus slugging percentage.

The Nationals, ranked 24th in that category, managed two runs in seven frames against Mike Minor, who shaved his ERA to 6.10. But whatever the bats did, all eyes were on Cavalli and how he would look after dominating for Rochester since early July. His four-seam fastball topped out at 97.8 mph. His change-up, a developing pitch, accounted for a pair of strikeouts. Friedl, a left-handed batter, lifted a curveball that got too much of the plate. Throughout, Cavalli appeared to battle flu issues caused by the DC humidity, often reaching for the rosin bag or rubbing his right hand in the dirt.

“I felt very comfortable. . . at home,” said Cavalli, who was cheered on by a large group of relatives and friends and most of the staff who coached him at the University of Oklahoma. “I really thought I was going to be more nervous, and I liked how I felt. I liked my mental space up there. There was no panic; I felt composed. But I got to execute more. It comes down to that.

“You have to execute pitches, and I didn’t do that tonight, and I didn’t put my team in a position to win a ballgame. I got to be better.

The Nationals haven’t had a starting pitcher earn a win in 42 games and counting. They have not had a starter win his debut since Stephen Strasburg’s historic arrival in 2010. In sum, in so many ways, Cavalli is like his organization, growing from the ground up.

So bumps were expected for a righty who needed 109 pitches to complete five innings for Rochester in his previous start. He is not fully refined. He’s not supposed to be a rookie with a mixed bag of an outing to his name. If his defense is a bit sturdier, the numbers would look better. And if the numbers looked better, that wouldn’t change how little a single game matters in the long run.

“I thought the fastball played well tonight and the change-up as well. I was very pleased with the change-up,” Cavalli said. “Slider, I just got to work on it a little bit, and my curveball has always been there. So I’m not worried about it, and I’m very excited for this next start.”

Since 2017, the Nationals have drafted four pitchers in the first round: Seth Romero, Mason Denaburg, Jackson Rutledge and Cavalli. Yet as of 7:05 pm on Friday, once Cavalli began his night with a 97-mph heater, he was the only one of the four to make a start for Washington. Romero, picked in 2017, logged three relief appearances during the pandemic season and has otherwise struggled to stay healthy. Denaburg, picked in 2018, has been limited to 55⅔ innings — 35⅓ of them this year — because of repeated injuries. Then Rutledge, picked in 2019, is just clicking with the low Class A Fredericksburg Nationals because of his own health issues.

Any prospect, first-rounder or otherwise, is liable to hit or miss. What teams can do, though, is minimize the risks through scouting and player development, two areas in which the Nationals have struggled in recent years. But with Cavalli, with a pitcher picked in 2020 who climbed the system in two years, there’s hope that a spot atop their future rotations will be filled.

When he exited after plunking Friedl in the fifth, a crowd not used to cheering stood for a loud ovation. Cavalli will have another chance against the Oakland Athletics in six days.

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