Last week, the Philadelphia Phillies chased Stephen Strasburg, who was struggling with command, after four innings. Nationals Manager Davey Johnson needed someone to churn through innings. So he called for one of his two regular fixers: Tom Gorzelanny.
Gorzelanny, a pitcher with 110 starts who was converted to a full-time reliever last season, came into the game and pitched three scoreless innings. As usual, Gorzelanny, 30, will earn little recognition for that appearance but, inside the Nationals clubhouse, his role and work is appreciated. He saved the team from having to use another pitcher or two that night.
“It’s something for the average fan you might not understand what he does,” said reliever Sean Burnett, Gorzelanny’s locker mate and former Pittsburgh Pirate teammate. “But as a teammate and fellow bullpen guy, he picks up the pitching staff night in, night out.”
If you subtract a bad six-run outing in April, Gorzelanny has a 2.39 ERA. With it, he still has a respectable 3.35 ERA, and has struck out 40 batters and walked 18 over 51 innings. Among National League relievers, he is 10th in innings pitched.
In his 31 appearances this season, only twice has Gorzelanny been handed a lead and lost it. He has allowed a Nationals lead to be trimmed only twice. Most of his appearances have been of the mop up, eat-through-innings variety.
Fifteen of his 31 appearances came when the Nationals were down, six of those when they trailed by three runs or more. Gorzelanny said he doesn’t necessarily want to be the clean up guy but understands his role and knows Johnson will use him late in games, too, if needed.
“You can’t go out there with the mentality of, ‘Oh great, I get to pitch in a game that doesn’t matter,’” Gorzelanny said. “It’s not going to help you. It’s going to make it worse for you. I just have to go out there each time and focus on what I’m supposed to do and the task at hand.
Gorzelanny is walking batters at a lower rate (3.2 walks per nine innings) than he did in most of the seasons when he was a starter. And, he is also striking out more batters (7.1 strikeouts per nine innings) than he did in most seasons as a starter, too. Gorzelanny attributes that to being a reliever who has less time to feel out a batter or test pitches. A reliever must get outs immediately. That’s especially tough when his workload isn’t regular.
“As a reliever you have to make the pitches right away,” he said. “I feel like I just try to have that mentality from the get-go and get guys out.”
Gorzelanny was drafted in the second round in 2003 by the Pirates. He came up as a starter, making 65 starts in his first four seasons. In 2009, he started the season as a reliever for the Pirates and did both for the Cubs after he was traded mid-season. He was the Nationals fifth starter last season before becoming a reliever again in late July.
The Nationals tendered Gorzelanny a contract this offseason and are paying him $3 million after salary arbitration. They control his rights through the 2013 season.
“I’ve gone out there each outing with the same mentality of trying to do my job no matter what situation we’re in,” he said. “If I come in to clean up an inning or eat some innings up, I’m not trying to take it the wrong way or anything, I just wanted to go out and pitch and do my job.”