Carl Edwards Jr. pitching well as a Nationals reliever

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Carl Edwards Jr.’s first relief appearance this season for the Washington Nationals didn’t go the way he probably envisioned it.

The day he was called up to the majors, he gave up three runs in the sixth inning against the New York Mets with Washington leading by a run and eventually earned the loss. After the game, Edwards made a promise.

“I do know one thing, and one thing that’s a fact: It won’t happen again,” Edwards said on May 10.

So far, Edwards has made good on that pledge: He hasn’t allowed a run in the 12 outings since. He’s allowed only two hits during that stretch. He has still walked six batters — but he has also struck out 12.

Success at the major league level isn’t new to Edwards. He was part of the bullpen that helped the Chicago Cubs win the 2016 World Series and earned the win in Game 7. But after appearing in 131 games with the Cubs over the next two seasons, Edwards was traded to the San Diego Padres at the trade deadline in 2019. He made five relief appearances with the Seattle Mariners in 2020 and seven more in 2021 between the defending champion Atlanta Braves and Toronto Blue Jays, where he dealt with abdominal and oblique injuries.

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Edwards signed with the Nationals on a minor league deal in February. When he started the season in Class AAA Rochester, the Braves presented him with a World Series ring before a minor league game even though he recorded only one out for the team.

“It feels different because I was with the Cubs and it was a 108-year curse,” Edwards said Thursday about receiving a ring from the Braves. “I reached out to [the Braves] and told them thank you but, you know, I wasn’t there.”

Another chance with Washington reunited him with some familiar faces — Dave Martinez and pitching coach Jim Hickey — who worked with him while he was in Chicago.

Both Martinez and Hickey said they knew Edwards would be a valuable bullpen arm if he could stay healthy and pound the strike zone. He didn’t make the team’s Opening Day roster, but when he gave up one run in 14 ⅓ innings in Rochester, the Nationals gave him a shot.

So far in the majors, although it is a small sample size, he’s thrown a career-high 53.2 percent of his pitches in the zone; the major league average is 48.5 percent. His success inside the zone has set up his pitches outside of it — he’s gotten batters to make contact with 65.4 percent of the pitches outside of the zone, seven percent higher than league average.

“When we were in Chicago, Joe Maddon was convinced that he would, at some point, be the closer and all he had to do was get into the strike zone,” Hickey said. “And you can see, when he is in the strike zone, he’s really, really difficult to hit.”

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Edwards mixes a fastball with a natural cutter action that tops out around 96 miles per hour with a curveball. He’s also added a change-up to his arsenal this year. It’s always been a pitch Edwards could throw, but one he didn’t decide to start using in games until this year.

Hickey said the pitch almost functions like a sinker because he throws it at 90 mph and called the pitch “a weapon to induce groundballs” which in turn helps keep his pitch count down.

“Two, three, four years ago, he would have been looking for two [or] three strikeouts, and it would have been 23 pitches, 24 pitches,” Hickey said. “And then that impacts your availability for tomorrow or to go two innings. So [the change-up has] made them a little bit more efficient, but also he’s made himself more efficient with the better strike throwing.”

Edwards has quickly become one of Martinez’s most trusted relievers. On Saturday with the team trailing by one, Martinez said he called down to the bullpen to see if Edwards Jr. could enter and preserve the one-run deficit. Edwards agreed to come in and pitch, even though Martinez had planned to not use him because he’s pitched so much recently. The Nationals eventually won the game.

Aside from his performance on the field, Hickey said he’s seen a new level of focus from Edwards that’s natural for a ballplayer as he grows older.

“I think you see just a little bit of a maturation as a pitcher, as a person,” Hickey said. “And he’s been a 2016 world champion, an integral part of that team, to being in the minor leagues. So it gives him a little bit of perspective.”

Hickey said some players take being in the majors for granted, thinking they’ll be in the league for 10 years when they reach the majors at a young age.

Edwards said he’s learned a lot since he was a young pitcher for the Cubs. But for him, his success boils down to enjoying himself and not worrying about the outcome. If it doesn’t go his way, he’ll reset for the next day.

“Just going out there and having fun playing the game,” Edwards said about his approach. “Just not taking nothing for granted. That’s all we can do. It’s only so much we can control and I just control what I can control and let everything else play itself [out].”

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