Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
With four strong innings today, Craig Stammen made his case for a rotation spot.
Stammen? He just keeps his mouth shut, keeps a smile on his face and keeps retiring opposing hitters.
And because of that, the second-year right-hander suddenly looks like a safe bet to make the Opening Day roster.
"He's been good throughout," manager Jim Riggleman said today after watching Stammen throw four innings without allowing an earned run. "He's really making a case for himself to be in the rotation. He's not taking anything for granted. He's competing and pitching very well."
Earlier in the day, Riggleman said there were four guys still competing for two spots in the rotation: Stammen, Livan Hernandez, Scott Olsen and J.D. Martin. Let's be honest, though -- Martin hasn't appeared in a big-league game since March 10 and isn't slated to pitch in a big-league game over the next three days. Hernandez, meanwhile, is essentially a lock to make the rotation. He starts Wednesday night against the Yankees, and barring injury or something else unusual, he lines up to start the Nats' third game of the regular season (April 8 against the Phillies).
So, really we're talking about one remaining spot up for grabs between Stammen and Olsen. And if Olsen doesn't make a serious statement tomorrow night against the Tigers, this race might be over.
Olsen, of course, was last seen throwing an 86 mph fastball in a minor-league, intrasquad game. For the left-hander (who had shoulder surgery last summer) to be effective, he's got to be throwing in the low-90s. He believes he'll get back to that point, but time is most certainly running out for that to happen.
"I think he's healthy, but I don't think he's 100 percent back yet," Riggleman said. "We've got at least two starts to continue to see him move toward that."
The Grapefruit League schedule actually is pretty accommodating for the Nationals, who are due to play split-squad games Saturday against the Braves and Mets. Stammen and Olsen each could start that day. But by the time the turn comes around again April 1, one of the two has to get the nod.
The way Stammen has thrown this spring, you've got to believe he's going to find his way onto the roster no matter what, whether as the No. 5 starter or as a long reliever. He made it clear today he wants the starter's job.
"That's what I came here to do," he said. "That was my plan. So far, things have gone my way a little bit and I'm in a pretty decent spot, I think."
We saw glimpses last season of Stammen's ability to be a successful pitcher. When his sinker is working, he's pretty effective. But now that his elbow is no longer in pain after having bone chips removed in September, we're finding out just how effective he can be.
In addition to that sinker, Stammen also throws a pretty nasty breaking ball, one that has led to eight strikeouts over his last eight innings. When his elbow was in pain, he couldn't do that.
"It's pretty easy to see: I'm getting a lot more swings and misses now," he said. "Last year, I had no chance of getting those swings and misses."
Stammen has now thrown a total of 9 1/3 innings this spring. He's allowed nine hits, three earned runs, with only two walks to go along with those eight strikeouts. More importantly, he says he feels better now than he has in nearly a year, since he first turned heads with a spot start against the Tigers last March.
As for the pressure of competing for a big-league job as the spring reaches its final two weeks, Stammen tries not to think too much about it.
"It's not easy at all," he said. "You have to trick yourself, almost daily. You can't start rooting against people. They're your teammates. You gotta root for them. You gotta be a good teammate. You've just got to go out there and do your thing. And whatever they decide, it's done for a reason."