The Nationals were able to come back late and claim a victory on Saturday after a three-run deficit thanks, in large part, to three strong innings from Craig Stammen out of the bullpen. The work of a long reliever is often overlooked, but Stammen bridged Gio Gonzalez’s shorter outing to Matt Thornton in the ninth when the game was tied.
Stammen’s performance on Saturday caps a stretch in which he has fired 7 1/3 scoreless innings over three outings. Before that, he had a rough patch, giving up 12 runs in seven games spread over a month. Stammen has commanded his sinker better and has been more efficient. After his ERA took a hit with his skid, Stammen has trimmed it back to 3.59.
“There’s no secret,” he said. “That’s the thing. I searched for something, and a lot of the times it’s don’t change anything and keep doing what you’re doing. Ups and downs of the season will even themselves out. I made a few mechanical thoughts in my head that I thought about in the past and maybe got away from or didn’t have to worry about and now kind of have to worry about them. I feel like it made my pitches more effective. It fixed the process.”
Stammen admitted that one mechanical change he did make was ensuring that his left shoulder didn’t jerk open too early in his delivery. He reminded himself as he pitched about his front shoulder, and the conscious effort worked.
“Even [Saturday] night, I still felt a little off,” he said. “I was locating the fastball but I was lucky that it was still moving so they didn’t put good contact on it. I can’t say I was completely sharp [Saturday] night but I was sharp enough to be effective.”
Stammen also credits more regular work as a reason for being better. Earlier this month, he went about two weeks with only three outings. It was back to more regular work until a break before Saturday’s outing, which his first appearance in six days.
Stammen’s usage reflects, in part, Manager Matt Williams’s bullpen management philosophy. Stammen is fourth in the majors with 22 multi-inning relief appearances. In fact, seven of Stammen’s 36 appearances were longer than two innings. Six times he has pitched at least three innings. Last season, he had 27 multi-inning appearances and 35 in 2012.
Former Manager Davey Johnson tried last season to free Stammen up for a bigger, more versatile role beyond simply long relieving, but it didn’t last long given injuries to other relievers. Williams usually holds back Stammen in close or tie games, keeping him available as protection against extra innings. Stammen is also often the first one to relieve a struggling starter chased early from the game.
The nature of the Nationals’ games has led to feast or famine usage for Stammen. When he has appeared in games, it has been for long outings, which, in turn, knocks him out for more days afterward as he recovers.
“It is a double-edged sword,” Stammen said. “Look at every reliever we have in the bullpen. The more consistently they pitch the more effective they are. Look at [Tyler Clippard] and Drew [Storen]. They have the most consistent innings and know exactly when they’re going into the game and they’ve pitched a lot lately. They haven’t given up any runs. That definitely helps to stay sharp. But I know my role on the team is different from theirs and I have to respect that. That’s part of it.”