Austen Williams got a rude awakening to life in the big leagues.
In his second appearance with the Nationals, the 25-year-old rookie right-hander gave up three homers in the sixth inning Tuesday night to the St. Louis Cardinals in an 11-8 slugfest loss.
That came after he did not allow a longball in 68 minor league innings this season, spread across a total of 32 games (two starts) with Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Syracuse.
“I can’t keep using the same guys every single day. These guys have to pitch,” manager Dave Martinez said of the decision to bring in the young hurlers.
Williams, however, is hardly alone among his bullpen brethren in watching balls leave the yard.
Nationals relievers gave up four homers Tuesday and have allowed 70 this season, second-worst in the National League, ahead of only the lowly Mets.
Some of the biggest culprits still with the team include veterans Justin Miller (10 homers in 46 innings), Sammy Solis (five in 36 1/3) and lefty Tim Collins, who allowed four in his first 17 1/3 innings. Solis gave up a grand slam in the ninth Tuesday — and those runs were the margin of victory.
Washington’s ERA in the ninth inning — 4.37 through Monday — ranks 13th out of 15 teams in the National League.
“Obviously we have had some struggles this year and tough times. But we have had good times. Some have stepped up in situations they have not been in before,” Collins said. “For the most part, we have thrived.”
Perhaps: overall Washington relievers have posted an ERA of 3.87 through Tuesday, ranking in the middle of the pack in the league.
Now this month younger pitchers, both starters and relievers, will get a chance to perform on the mound.
“It is obviously an awesome situation for us,” Williams said before his rough outing. “Luckily there was an opportunity. Unfortunately, it was because we are not in the situation we are usually in (as division leaders). I want to pitch in high-leverage situations. I have to earn that trust first.”
The bullpen has undergone a transformation since the start of the season, which to be fair is true of other teams.
But the Washington situation is more drastic, as veteran relievers Brandon Kintzler and Sean Kelley were traded in late July — in part perhaps due to clubhouse chemistry instead of on-field results.
Veteran reliever Ryan Madson was traded last week to the Los Angeles Dodgers as the Nationals continue to eye their payroll for next season.
All-Star closer Sean Doolittle has been on the disabled list since July 10 with left toe inflammation, which means young pitchers such as Williams, Jimmy Cordero, Wander Suero and Kyle McGowin could get more work in the closing weeks out of the bullpen.
McGowin was called up from Syracuse on Tuesday after he led the minors with a 0.90 WHIP this season.
In addition, Jefry Rodriguez was moved to the bullpen earlier this week to cut down on his workload after making seven starts this season, according to Martinez.
Williams was drafted by the Nationals out of Texas State in the sixth round in 2014. The Fort Worth native had a 5.52 ERA in 2017 in the minors — this season, it was 1.19.
“(The Nationals) put a huge premium on attacking hitters and throwing strikes,” Williams said. “You have to prove you can throw strikes. I think they have always stressed throw strikes, get outs and don’t throw a lot of pitches.”
The third-place Nationals were 69-70 overall through Tuesday and were 7 1/2 games back of first-place Atlanta and 4 1/2 games behind second-place Philadelphia in the National League East. Washington entered Wednesday eight games back of St. Louis for the second wild-card spot.
The Nationals begin a four-game series at home Thursday night against the Chicago Cubs, which beat Washington last year in the NLDS. Martinez was a bench coach last season for the Cubs under manager Joe Maddon.
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