Through the first two games, Nationals Manager Davey Johnson has revealed a glimpse of how he plans to use a reconfigured bullpen and handle his relievers’ new roles. During an opening day victory, he turned to Tyler Clippard in the eighth inning and new closer Rafael Soriano in the ninth inning. In Wednesday night’s encore against the Miami Marlins, he turned instead to Drew Storen in the eighth and again to Soriano to close the game.
“We got a lot of good characters,” Storen said, “just a matter of what weapon he wants to use.”
Johnson has always preferred to use a two-tiered bullpen. Soriano is the primary closer and Storen is the backup, with Clippard also in the mix as a closer to spell either. Johnson is still learning the limits of his new closer Soriano, but soon he will know how far he can push him. And once he does, Johnson will know when he can turn to Storen and Clippard, who he will use to mix-and-match in the eighth inning depending on the matchups.
“That’s something I’ll learn and hopefully [Soriano will] let me know if he’s getting overworked,” Johnson said. “That’s a really good problem to have. I hope that happens a lot. But I got a lot of choices for guys who want to step in.”
Storen made his season debut on Wednesday against the Marlins and recorded a quick 1-2-3 inning, working deliberately and attacking hitters. It was Storen’s first appearance in a meaningful game in Nationals Park since NLDS Game 5, when he blew the save by allowing four runs. All spring, Storen fiddled and worked on mechanics and pitches, and punched up a lackluster 4.63 ERA in 11 2/3 innings. On Wednesday, Storen was focused, firing 93- and 94-mph fastballs and sinkers to induce groundouts and using his wicked slider to strike out pinch hitter Chris Coghlan.
“I felt good,” he said. “It was good to get in there and get your feet wet in some regular season baseball. … It just felt comfortable more than anything. When you go out and get in a game like, a tight game, it’s fun and fun to get those juices flowing again. That’s what locks me in.”
With the Cincinnati Reds, a team with potent left-handed hitters, the Nationals’ next opponent, Johnson is resting Zach Duke to keep him fresh. Duke and Craig Stammen are the left-handed and right-handed long relievers, pitchers Johnson described as security blankets for him should a starter get scratched at the last minute or get hurt during a game or the game goes into extra innings.
Ryan Mattheus, who like Clippard has been effective against left-handed batters in his career, also made his season debut on Wednesday, tossing a scoreless seventh inning, a usual spot for him last season. He faced only right-handers. He allowed a leadoff single to Placido Polanco but escaped when Justin Ruggiano rolled over a sinker to Danny Espinosa, who made a quick scoop and turn to start a double play.
“The way it ended last year was tough,” Mattheus said. “We’ve been waiting on this for a long time. We had an extra bit of juices flowing. It was good to get the first one out of the way.”
Soriano completed his second save, but not without some trouble. He allowed a single to Donovan Solano and barely missed outside on a 3-2 fastball to Giancarlo Stanton, but got two flyouts from Polanco and Ruggiano to end the threat. It was his second appearance in as many games, but with an off day sandwiched in between. Johnson said Soriano would probably be available to pitch again on Thursday, and if he does or not will be a telling sign as to how often Soriano will close and Johnson will handle the rest of the bullpen when he doesn’t.
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FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL