The Nationals bullpen: ‘It’s our little fraternity out there, our own little team’

August 31, 2012

The Washington Nationals‘ bullpen may be the most distinctive subgroup within the team: a cluster of seven pitchers caged together in one little space every day, far removed from the rest of the team. That’s the perfect recipe for bonding, laughing and learning. From the bullpen in the outfield, they watch the game, arguing over balls and strikes and talking about anything and everything. Each pitcher has his own routine, seating arrangement and personality.

“That’s why we’re such a tight-knit group because no one else can really relate,” reliever Ryan Mattheus said. “We’re always caged in a little cage together, sticking up for each other and yapping back at fans.”

Added reliever Craig Stammen: “It’s our little fraternity out there, our own little team. I think we take pride in that. We root each other on probably a little bit harder than we root everybody else on.”

Other than the few times a reliever is warming up in the bullpen and it’s shown on television, fans don’t often look in that direction. In fact, in some ballparks, the bullpen is hard to spot. As a result, fans might know little about what happens back there. 

The relievers don’t all take their place in the bullpen by the game’s first pitch. At home, they usually join their teammates on the field for the national anthem and filter over to the bullpen afterwards. On the road, however, they take their time.

Stammen and Tom Gorzelanny, the Nationals’ middle relief, are the first pitchers in the bullpen because they’re often the first ones to enter a game. By the middle of the third inning, the rest of the relievers make the trek as a group from the clubhouse through the dugout onto the field and into the bullpen.

Stammen, Gorzelanny, bullpen coach Jim Lett and the bullpen catcher usually sit in a cluster. Then, when the rest join, everyone finds his spot. Henry Rodriguez, in between his stints on the disabled list, would sit off to the side, his way of focusing — and also because he speaks less English. But he is known for creating new and unique handshakes with teammates on a near-daily basis. Michael Gonzalez bounces around, sitting wherever he wants that day. Mattheus always finds his usual spot in between Stammen, to his left, and Sean Burnett, to his right.

“It just happens that way,” Mattheus said. “We just go out there and we sit down. It’s weird. We don’t ever really talk about it. No one ever says, ‘Hey, get out of my seat.’ Or anything like that. It’s not superstition or anything like that. It’s weird how we’re like that. It kind of falls into place.”

From there, they watch the game, analyze at-bats, gauge hitters and watch the tempo of play. Despite the unusual angles and vantage points from far in the outfield, they pick up useful tips. (“In some places, you can’t see anything so you just forget about it,” Stammen said. )

“I’m watching how Gio [Gonzalez] or [Ross] Detwiler is pitching these hitters,” Gonzalez said. “And that’s what these guys are doing. This guy swung at this pitch and this guy swings at this pitch.”

But it’s also fun and light; considering they spend a ton of time back there over the course of the season. Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard, roommates and friends, banter back and forth, impersonating voices and announcing the game. (“It’s hilarious,” Mattheus said.) They talk about baseball, the fans in the crowd, life, fantasy football or “what’s Sean’s kid’s saying funny at home,” Mattheus said.

“You name it, we probably talk about it,” Stammen said.

In places like Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, Wrigley Field in Chicago or AT&T Park in San Francisco, where the bullpens are intimately close to fans, the relievers laugh at the banter from opposing fans (“You spent eight years in the minor leagues!”). And, of course, the relievers grumble over calls.

“That’s probably what we do most: complain about the strikes and balls, the out calls,” Mattheus said, laughing. “We’re a million miles away, we have no place, but we’re always yelling, ‘Where’s that pitch?’”

By the fifth inning, each reliever gets up and stretches, regardless of whether they are pitching or not that day. It keeps them loose, ready and in a routine. They each have their own methods, but it usually involves stretching their arms, running around and breaking a light sweat. They warmup their arm with an outfielder the inning before they think they’re coming in.

“Everybody’s got their little routine that they do at certain times during the game,” Stammen said. “Once it gets past the fifth, sixth inning, it’s a little quieter. There isn’t as much horsing around going on.”

When the fifth inning hits, Burnett, for example, says nothing and sits off to the side. And when the bullpen phone rings and the voice on the other end calls their name, it’s all business.

“Once crunch time hits, we’re all locked in,” Mattheus said.

James Wagner joined the Post in August 2010 and, prior to covering the Nationals, covered high school sports across the region.
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