Davey Johnson was in a tough spot Monday night. He entered the eighth inning with the Nationals holding a 5-2 lead, comfortable enough. But he had ruled out using Tyler Clippard, his dominant and well-used set-up. He turned to a pitcher who, back in spring training, no one would have assumed would be protecting eighth-inning leads. He gave the ball to Ryan Mattheus.
This offseason, the Nationals removed Mattheus from their 40-man roster and made him available to any team that wanted him. No one claimed him, which was not too surprising. In 2010, he had made 10 appearances, all of them in the Gulf Coast League or rookie ball, while finishing his recovery from Tommy John surgery.
Mattheus, 27, began the year finishing off rehabbing an injury in Viera, Fla., then reported to Class AA Harrisburg, and then Class AAA Syracuse. He joined the Nationals on June 10. He continued his ascension until last night, when Johnson handed him the ball and told him to protect a lead in the eighth inning.
“I definitely see” a progression, Mattheus said. “I don’t know if that’s what I got called up here to do. I don’t know what they envisioned for me. But I enjoy pitching late in games. That’s what I always did in the minor leagues. That’s what I think fits my personality.”
Mattheus again validated Johnson’s confidence in him, retiring the Braves in order and lowering his ERA to 1.54 in 23 1/3 innings. Mattheus, even though he touches 95 mph with his fastball, has not been a classically dominant reliever. He has allowed five of 20 inherited runners score, and that 25 percent is just better than league average. He does not get many hitters to swing and miss – batters have missed 13.3 percent of the time they have swung against him. He has just nine strikeouts, 3.5 per nine innings, and seven walks. He’s been a little hit lucky; opponents are batting .243 on balls in play against him, and that’s despite more flyouts than groundouts.
But, so far, Mattheus has earned Johnson’s trust in crucial situations. Johnson has been adamant about preserving his pitching staff. He said he often worried from afar watching Jim Riggleman handle pitchers, not blaming Riggleman but concerned that the Nationals didn’t have the personnel in the bullpen to swallow innings if starters faltered. Sure enough, in Johnson’s first 30 games, the Nationals’ starter has failed to throw more than four innings seven times.
The product has been a worried Johnson and an overworked bullpen. Johnson wants to give more nights off to his top relievers, and that means more high-leverage spots for Mattheus.
“I like being in those intense situations,” Mattheus said. “Anytime you’re in a big league ballgame, it’s going to be intense. But I want the ball in close games. I want to show that I can get big outs when the game is on the line.”
Also: He enters the game to Katy Perry’s “Firework.” Which has not stopped being tremendous.
FROM THE POST
Rick Ankiel blasted two homers in the Nationals’ 5-3 win over the Braves, the team Ankiel played for in the second half of last year.
By trading for Michael Bourn, the Braves finally landed a center fielder, Dave Sheinin writes.
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Syracuse 8, Toledo 3: Roger Bernadina went 1 for 2 with three walks and a home run. Brad Meyers allowed no runs in 4 2/3 innings on two hits and five walks, striking iut six.
Harrisburg was off.
Potomac was off.
Hickory 14, Hagerstown 13: Michael Taylor went 2 for 4 with two home runs and six RBI. Wade Moore went 3 for 4 with a double, a home run and a walk.
Auburn 13, Tri-City 6: Matt Skole went 4 for 6 with a double. Caleb Ramsey went 3 for 5.