Craig Stammen entered the Nationals’ 7-4 victory yesterday afternoon at one of its most dire moments. There were two outs and two men on base, the Cubs having rallied against Gio Gonzalez in the fourth inning. It was what Stammen has come to describe as a Moment of Awareness.
This offseason, Stammen worked with his college coach at Dayton on his mental approach, the kind of thing Stammen had resisted in the past. His coach described how to think about situations in terms of one moment. Do not worry about why the men are on base. Just make one pitch.
“It made a lot of sense to me,” Stammen said. “I’d always been one of them guys that, I don’t need a shrink, I don’t need any of this method training. I can figure it out, I’m not an idiot. And this was just an extra tool that’s kind of, I think, given me a little bit of an edge.”
Go ahead and call the performance by the Nationals’ bullpen yesterday an Afternoon of Awareness. After Gonzalez lasted 3 2/3 innings, the bullpen threw 5 1/3 scoreless, one-hit innings, led by Stammen’s 2 1/3 innings and Henry Rodriguez’s dominant ninth inning. Davey Johnson called his relievers “one of the best bullpens in the league,” and their 7 1/3 scoreless innings to open the season has validated the praise.
“You could tell by the way they made the moves at the end of spring that we had so many guys who could be on this team, and the decisions they made were really tough,” Stammen said. “That means we’ve got some pretty good pitchers down there, and I think we take it upon ourselves to shut the game down. I think we’re really proud of that.”
Stammen keyed the relief yesterday, validating his own confidence. At Class AAA Syracuse last season, Stammen produced a 4.75 ERA, but he never thought he pitched that poorly.
“When I’d leave a runner on and get taken out of the game, it would score like every time, so my ERA looked terrible,” Stammen said. “It was just a weird season. Nothing went my way. But I knew that I was throwing the ball better than I ever had in my career. And then when I went up in September, the breaks started going my way and it validated that I didn’t have to change anything, just continue with the process, keep getting better.”
Stammen allowed one hit and struck out one, pounding the strike zone with his low-90s sinkers. He feels his mental approach has allowed him, at 28, to reach his highest peak yet. He was part of the Nationals’ rotation in 2009 and 2010, but spending most of last season at Class AAA Syracuse helped reset his mentality.
“It’s just kind of the evolution of every pitcher,” Stammen said. “I finally got enough understanding at the big league level of what I needed to do to get people out, and my mind processed it a little bit better than going in one ear and out the other, or me not remembering it. The whirlwind of being in the big leagues, you kind of get lost in it sometimes. I think I was able to sit back and really mentally figure it out a little bit. That’s carried on here lately.”
After Stammen stabilized the game, Ryan Mattheus pitched the seventh, perhaps the most dominant inning of his career. He threw 10 pitches, which produced nine strike, four swing-and-misses and two strikeouts. He hit 96 miles per hour and fired biting sliders.
Mattheus struck out only 3.4 batters per nine innings last year, and only twice in 35 games did he record multiple strikeouts. But that is not the kind of pitcher he is. In his two minor league seasons as a reliever before he underwent Tommy John surgery in 2009, Mattheus struck out 8.9 batters per nine.
When Mattheus reached the majors last season, he still had not recaptured his slider, typically the last pitch to return after Tommy John surgery because of the elbow extension required to throw it. As his arm fatigued, he also lost the feel for his splitter. He was throwing in the mid-90s, but with nothing to complement it.
“It’s so much better,” Mattheus said. “It’s night and day. The fastball is still about the same. The slider is night and day, though. And I’m getting the split back to where it was when I was in the minor leagues last year. I got up here and it kind of didn’t happen. So I was pitching without really a breaking ball or an out pitch. I think it’s going to be big moving forward.”
Tyler Clippard handled the eighth, making him two for two this season in scoreless innings. Rodriguez recorded his first save in his first chance this year. He was as dominant as you would expect, and even more under control, despite a walk. He struck out the last three hitters he faced and threw three 100-mph fastballs – and a 94-mph changeup.
Rodriguez threw 15 strikes in 21 pitches, which five swing-and-misses and a foul tip. After he issued Ian Stewart a seven-pitch, leadoff walk, Rodriguez threw 12 of his final 14 pitches for strikes. It capped a dominant day for a bullpen that, let there be no doubt, even without Drew Storen could be the best in baseball.