WASHINGTON – Former Harrisburg Senators’ star Michael A. Taylor and Aaron Barrett, a year ago this time, were aiding the playoff drive of the Washington Nationals. Taylor, an outfielder, then contributed in post-season play as the Nationals won the World Series for the first time.
A lot has changed in this pandemic-induced season – most of it on the negative side – but once again several former City Island inhabitants are advancing to the nation’s capital to help the Major League club.
While the Nationals are a longshot to make the playoffs, several pitchers who came through Harrisburg have made their Major League debut in this shortened 60-game season. With no minor league season, Washington has players at its alternate site in Fredericksburg, Va., and they can join the Nationals’ taxi squad on the road or be added to the active roster.
“We are having to get creative and simulate games,” said Brad Holman, the pitching coordinator in player development for the Nationals. “We are not playing against the opposition, so to speak. We have our pitchers throwing against our own hitters” in simulated games the Carolina League home of the Nationals in Virginia.
Holman was the Triple-A pitching coach last season at Fresno, the top farm team of the Nationals. He took over his new role after Paul Menhart was promoted to Major League pitching coach in May 2019.
Among the pitchers in Fredericksburg are veteran right-hander Barrett – who was promoted from Harrisburg to the Nationals on Sept. 7, 2019, for his second stint in The Show – as well as young pitchers such as Jackson Rutledge, Tim Cate, and Cade Cavalli.
“There are certain limitations. We have been limited to a 60-player pool,” Holman said. “I am not going to pitch deep inside against your own guys. I don’t want to hurt anybody. Everything is on the table. It has been a great experience though from the standpoint of the mix of older and younger players. The older players have been great. They have been so instrumental in the development of the younger players; that has been a neat dynamic.”
“There have been some positives. We can make sure they don’t throw more than 25 pitches in one inning,” Holman added. “There have been some pros and cons. It is a lot easier to manage; we don’t have to cover nine innings every day” like a minor-league game.
One of the success stories this summer has been right-hander Dakota Bacus, who joined the Nationals from Oakland during the 2013 season. Since then he spent part of every season from 2015-19 with the Senators. He pitched in 26 games with the Senators in 2018 and then one in 2019 as he spent most of the season under Holman at Fresno.
He made his Major League on Aug. 9 against Baltimore and did not allow a run in his first four games with Washington. But his ERA rose to 7.94 in his first 11 outings from the bullpen in games through Monday.
“Dakota has been in this organization a long time,” Holman said. “He takes the ball and he pitches; he is very low maintenance. He is a pitching coaches’ best scenario. He is just very self-sufficient. He competes well – he is just a guy to have and goes about his business as a professional. He has been able to do a lot of things to the baseball – he sinks it, he spins it.
He very seldom throws a straight ball. He is an overachiever.”
Bacus went on the 10-day Injured List Monday with a right flexor strain.
“I talked to him yesterday. He did not feel that bad. He will go down there (to Fredericksburg) and rehab and hope to get him back,” manager Dave Martinez said Tuesday.
Lefty Ben Bramer, who had a 3.19 ERA last year with the Senators in 13 starts, made his Major League debut on Aug. 28 with the Nationals out of the bullpen. He was drafted by the Nationals out of Auburn in the 18th round in 2016.
“Ben was a starter here at the alternate camp,” Holman said. “We basically have 10 starters and they are on a five-day rotation and they go against each other. A lot of times it is pitcher, catcher, and hitter. He knows how to pitch – he has always had a decent breaking pitch, a curveball. He moves the ball around; he likes to pitch inside. He has developed an above-average changeup.”
“He went to the Major Leagues as a reliever, which he had never done before,” Holman added on Monday. “He got a couple of innings under his belt. He is back here (in Fredericksburg) and back in the rotation and we will continue to work like we normally do. You can never count those lefties out. He could be a fifth starter or long man. He has matured right before my eyes. You never know where his ceiling is at.”
Sterling Sharp was 5-3 with 3.99 ERA in nine starts with Harrisburg in 2019. A former draft pick of the Nationals, he was picked up by the Marlins as a Rule V pitcher made his Major League debut with Miami last month before he was returned to Washington.
“Right now we are getting his legs under him a little bit. He threw a side three days ago and another inning yesterday,” Holman said Monday night, “and he has another inning tomorrow (Tuesday). For the time being, we will use him as a reliever because if the Major League team has a need that would probably be the role he would play. I think long term he will slide into a rotation and work as a starter next spring. He is a sinkerball guy and those guys are awesome because they get quick outs. He prefers starting.”
James Bourque, a right-handed reliever, was very impressive while in Harrisburg. He had a 0.92 ERA in 15 outings from the bullpen in 2018 and then posted a mark of 1.33 in 14 appearances last season. He made his Major League debut with the Nationals last year, pitched with Washington in two games this summer, and then re-joined the Nationals on Monday after some time at the alternate site.
“He has three above-average pitches – fastball, curve, and change. The biggest issue has just been (throwing) strikes,” Holman said. “He has some funk and deception (in his delivery) but sometimes it is tough to repeat that. He will falter by walking a couple of guys. But stuff-wise, he is pretty good. He is a hard worker and perfectionist and always wants to be better.”
Kyle McGowin, a right-hander, pitched in five games with one start in 2018 with the Nationals and seven games with one start last season. The native of Long Island made 11 starts with Holman at Fresno last year and made six starts with the Senators in 2019.
“This spring we talked him about going to the bullpen and working off his slider, which is such a special pitch,” Holman said.
In his first Major League game this year, McGowin came out of the bullpen and struck out four batters while not allowing a hit in 2.1 innings on Saturday at Atlanta.
“He has been getting acclimated to the reliever role and it has given him the freedom to rip that slider off as often as he wants to,” Holman said.
Despite a record of 15-25 before Tuesday’s game, the Nationals hope these young pitchers can get more experience the rest of this month and help the team in 2021 when spring training begins – hopefully – in Florida.
Editor’s note: David Driver, a free-lance writer, has been covering the Nationals at all levels for 10 years. He can be reached @DaytonVaDriver or davidsdriver.com