Handling a bullpen is one of the toughest tasks for a manager, especially a rookie. Relievers’ workloads are moving targets and overlap, match-ups are important considerations and game situations can change in an instant. It is impossible to always use the correct reliever in every situation while also balancing every arm’s workload. Yet the Nationals’ bullpen — despite questions about Ross Detwiler’s usage — has been superb and has the third-best ERA (2.28) in baseball.
Through the first six weeks of the season, the Nationals have leaned heavily, perhaps too much, on versatile left-handed reliever Jerry Blevins, while using right-handed set-up man Drew Storen, one of the best relievers in baseball this season, far too little. Blevins has pitched in 20 of the Nationals’ 40 games this season; Storen is in a recent stretch of 13 games in which he only appeared three times. (With his appearance in Wednesday’s win, Tyler Clippard also has with 20 appearances.)
“We’ve been in situations where we’ve had to go long and deep into the bullpen,” Manager Matt Williams said earlier this week. “I imagine there will be times during the season where Drew will be in eight out of 13 games a la Clippard,” Williams said. “It’s kind of the way we played early on. We had a lot of leads. We had an opportunity for Clip to get in the eighth inning a lot early on. I think it’s ebb and flow of the season. There is nothing wrong [with Storen]. There is no reason that he has been in three out of the last 13 games. It’s a function of where we are at and how the games have gone. He is good with it. He is throwing. He’s been up a lot.”
Blevins, acquired in an offseason trade with the Oakland Athletics, is tied for the 12th-most relief appearances out of 338 pitchers with at least one relief appearance this season. Arizona’s Brad Ziegler leads the pack with 24 appearances. Blevins has a 3.78 ERA and has held left-handed batters to a .138 average.
Yet Blevins’ inning total, is relatively low given his appearances. He has pitched 16 2/3 innings, at times facing only one or two batters. Although pitches thrown in a game aren’t as high, Blevins is on pace to appear in 81 games, half of the Nationals’ contests. Last year was his career-high of 67 games.
“There are periods I’ve been used this frequently” in my career, Blevins said this week. “It’s not anything new. It’s hard to do. But it’s easy because we have such a good support staff — strength and conditioning coach, good trainers — that as long as I’m here and able to get my preparation in I’m ready to go. I’m in the training room a lot to make sure I’m warmed up proper. I’ve learned to limit my throwing in a sense.”
In order to be ready to pitch as often as needed, Blevins makes sure to prepare his mind and body. He needs about an hour and half before each game to sit in the hot tub, stretch and use a massage suction cups device. After games, he sits in a cold tub. Blevins, who has pitched in the majors for large parts of eight years, has also learned to limit the intensity of throwing before games and in the bullpen. Being around veteran Rafael Soriano has reinforced those beliefs.
“I get to watch Soriano do it,” Blevins said. “It’s amazing to me. I’m absolutely amazed at Sori’s preparation because he never … gets overextended when he doesn’t have to. … There’s a sense of purpose to everything he’s doing.”
Blevins said he has felt fine during this heavy stretch of work; some days stronger than others, which is normal throughout the season. This month alone, he has appeared in six of the Nationals’ 12 games. May’s schedule does offer four off-days, an unusually high number. For now, he considers pitches thrown more important than appearances — but that may change if this current workload continues.
“To me, it’s always a mental thing,” he said. “Unless I’m physically hurt, it’s a mental battle to keep my body ready.”
Storen, on the other hand, has been up in the bullpen more than he has appeared in games this month. He is off to a tremendous start: He has allowed only two runs, has a 1.46 ERA and his 0.57 WHIP is tied for the best in baseball among relievers. Storen’s 12 1/3 innings, however, are the fewest among the Nationals relievers. But because of the inconsistencies of the starting rotation — Nationals are averaging 5.8 innings per start, in the bottom third of the majors — Williams said he hasn’t been able to use Storen in his role.
Monday against the Diamondbacks, for example, the Nationals nearly tied the score in the top of the seventh but Denard Span’s double bounced over the wall and a run couldn’t come in on the ground-rule double. Storen and rookie Aaron Barrett were both up, but Williams used Barrett because the Nationals trailed, 5-4.
“We don’t end up scoring there, he’s not in the game because it’s not his situation,” Williams said. “So he’s up and he’s hot and he’s ready to go. But since we didn’t score, Barrett is in that game.”
Storen understands, although it’s not necessarily easy on him. When he came on in the 10th inning on Saturday, a game he lost to Oakland, Storen had pitched once in 12 days.
“I’ve gotten up a lot” in the bullpen, Storen said. “That helps, just arm strength-wise. It does help to get in games because you can never mimic a game situation. You just learn to make up for it by throwing before the game and make sure you’re getting work in the bullpen, too. In the bullpen, it’s just feast or famine, especially where I’m at situationally. We’ve had starters who go longer and we’re playing just a lot of strange games, not cookie cutter-type games. It’s just kind of part of it. It tests you a little bit. Got off to a really good start, got into a lot of games and it changed a little bit. But it kind of tests you a little bit.”
While Storen may be underused now, he knows he may soon hit a stretch of a lot of work in a short span. And he’s ready for that. But finding the balance of in-game and bullpen work isn’t easy right now.
“If you talk to me in a week, I’ll probably be going, ‘Man, I could use a day,’” Storen said. “That’s kind of the name of the game in the bullpen. That’s kind of how it works. And all year we’ve been playing strange games.”