The most welcoming quality of baseball’s grinding schedule may be the daily opportunity for renewal. Last night, after an 8-0 loss, the Nationals emptied a somber locker room. The last man out was Ryan Mattheus, who had learned he broke his hand punching a locker the day earlier. “It’s pretty embarrassing,” Mattheus said.
This afternoon, players could barely contain giggles. There were Yunesky Maya and Fernando Abad, summoned from Syracuse to provide fresh arms in the bullpen, sitting next to each other and giddy to be back in the major leagues. Their new teammates wore T-shirts with a photo that had surfaced on the Internet of Steve McCatty, their beloved curmudgeon of a pitching coach, during a Playgirl photo shoot in the early 80s.
In less than a day, Dan Haren had somehow stumbled upon a T-shirt shop and had them made. “It was fate,” he said. Across the back of the shoulders, the word “UNTUCK” was printed. Relievers and starters alike wore them with glee.
“Utter joy,” Tyler Clippard exclaimed, wearing one of the shirts. “This is the best day of my life.”
When he saw the picture in the morning, “I threw up,” Jordan Zimmermann said, cracking up. “I sent out a big group text to everyone. I think Cat’s pretty embarrassed.” Zimmermann looked over his shoulder to Gio Gonzalez, who was wearing a black, sleeveless version of the shirt. Zimmermann wondered if Gonzalez was going to wear it during a MASN interview. Gonzalez grinned wide and nodded.
“I could have done without that revelation,” Manager Davey Johnson said, smiling. “If you had asked me who that was, I could not have figured it out. If I had 100 years, I couldn’t figure out who that was. There’s been a big chance in the last 30 years. I didn’t know he had that good a body, and I didn’t know he had that much hair.”
Johnson’s day had not started on such a light-hearted note. He ran into Mattheus in the team hotel as Mattheus readied to fly back to Washington for more tests on his broken throwing hand.
“I had a few choice words for him,” Johnson said. “He wasn’t in good spirits. I didn’t expect him to be.”
Mattheus, Johnson said, will miss a minimum of six weeks. The bone will take four to six weeks to heal – longer if doctors need to insert a stabilizing pin in his hand.
For now, Abad will take Mattheus’s place in the bullpen, giving the Nationals a lefty. Abad posted a 5.07 ERA last season with the Astros, and the Nationals signed him to a minor league deal this winter. He thrived during spring training, and at Class AAA Syracuse he punched up a 1.06 ERA in 17 innings with 12 strikeouts and two walks.
“I really like Abad,” said one rival evaluator who recently saw Syracuse play. “I’m actually surprised it took them this long to call him up.”
Abad’s presence may help Johnson manage a bullpen that hasn’t settled all season. Abad gives the Nationals a left-hander to use in a clear-cut role. The Nationals had only Zach Duke as a lefty in their bullpen this year, confident their right-handers could get lefties out. The experiment has only partially worked.
Tyler Clippard has held left-handed hitters to a .038 average this year. But lefties are hitting .389 off Drew Storen and .452 against Mattheus.
“Abad’s a welcome addition,” Johnson said. “He’ll get plenty of opportunities to pitch. He threw awfully good in the spring. He’s got a good fastball and a curveball, and he’s throwing them over. He’ll be useful.”
Abad said he could also use his changeup a useful weapon against right-handed hitters. For Tuesday afternoon, he brought cheerfulness to a clubhouse in need of it.
Monday night, he was eating dinner in a Toldeo restaurant and received a call from Syracuse Manager Tony Beasley.
“Fernando, where you at?” Beasley asked.
“I’m eating. What’s going on?” Abad replied.
Beasley asked Abad if he knew where Maya was. Abad said he did not know.
“Ok, you have to find him, because I tried to call him three times,” Beasley told Abad. “You guys are going to The Show.”
Abad called Maya, who had been sleeping in preparation of a 10:30 a.m. start Tuesday morning. Maya picked up for Abad, and he learned he would be getting on a plane in the morning instead.
Abad next called his mother in La Romana, Dominican Republic. She was startled by the call and thought something was wrong. And the she learned her son was going back to the majors.
The Nationals’ bullpen fell into disarray in part because Ross Detwiler missed his start Monday night with a slight oblique strain. Detwiler played catch this afternoon, staying on track to make his next start. The Nationals have yet to pencil Detwiler in for Sunday, but they are optimistic he’ll miss only the one start. The Nationals could push Detwiler back to Tuesday, and no starter would take the ball on short rest because of an off day Thursday.
“I have a good feeling about Detwiler,” Johnson said. “He came through pretty good today.”
Johnson watched Detwiler play catch as hitters finished early batting practice. He liked what he saw from a large pack of Nationals batters, who are trying to bust a team-wide, season-long slump. The sun was shining over a gorgeous ballpark. The Nationals had lost three straight, but they were giving Stephen Strasburg the ball in a few hours.
“Maybe things are turning around a little bit,” Johnson said. “Maybe.”