JUPITER, Fla. — Taylor Jordan handed the ball to Matt Williams with two outs in the bottom of the sixth and walked back to the first base dugout. And with that came the official conclusion of the evaluation phase of the Nationals’ No. 5 starter spring competition.
Now comes the hardest part: Making the decision between Jordan and Tanner Roark.
“They both have pitched really well,” Williams said. “What are you gonna do? They both have answered the bell every time we’ve asked them to.”
Jordan had the final opportunity today to make one last impression on Williams, pitching coach Steve McCatty and the Nationals front office, and he did nothing to hurt his chances. The right-hander allowed just one run to the Marlins over 5 2/3 innings, carrying a shutout into the sixth before Giancarlo Stanton got to him for an RBI double.
It was a strong finish to a solid spring for Jordan, who wound up posting a 3.92 ERA in six games (four starts), allowing 24 hits in 20 2/3 innings but notching 20 strikeouts to only two walks. More than the numbers, the 25-year-old was mostly pleased that he proved himself healthy after he broke his right ankle in a freak October accident.
“Honestly, I’m really pleased that I came back this strong after I broke my ankle this offseason,” he said. “I’m extremely pleased that I’m as healthy as I am right now.”
Jordan entered the spring in a three-way competition with Roark and Ross Detwiler, who figured to have the leg up given his experience. But when the Nationals decided to move Detwiler to their bullpen last week, the choice was narrowed to Jordan or Roark.
Neither right-hander significantly distinguished himself from the other, with Roark (3.29) besting Jordan’s ERA but conceding the strikeout-to-walk rate (11-to-3).
Both pitchers have insisted all along they weren’t consumed with the competition aspect of this camp, and both have gone out of their way to compliment the other.
“I have to do the best I can,” Jordan said. “If he does great, then great for him. He’s worked hard his whole life. Who am I to wish negatively on him?”
There isn’t much to distinguish one from the other, but there are subtle factors. Jordan has better pure “stuff,” but Roark was better as a rookie last summer (7-1, 1.51 ERA). Roark has shown he’s versatile enough to pitch out of the rotation or bullpen. Jordan notes he has never spent a day above Class AA.
“I’m happy to go to Triple-A,” Jordan said. “It’s still a bump up for me. I’ve never even been to Triple-A. Last year was just a blessing to be up in the big leagues.”
And there are other, outside factors the Nationals must consider. Will Doug Fister, who missed three weeks with elbow inflammation, be ready to start the season on-time? If so, will he be able to go more than five innings and negate the need for a long reliever? Can Roark better help the Nationals out of the bullpen than the rotation?
Williams, McCatty, general manager Mike Rizzo and others will meet in the next day or two, debate each pitcher’s strengths and weaknesses and make a decision. To hear them talk about it, this is legitimately a tough one.
“As of now,” Williams said, “my mind is not made up.”