After six unexpectedly brilliant innings from right-handed starter Ross Ohlendorf on Wednesday night, the Nationals took another step in the ongoing overhaul of their bullpen. And, in part, further revealing that their decision to open the season with one left-handed reliever didn’t give them the needed results.
On Thursday morning, Johnson told Ohlendorf that he would remain with the Nationals and move to the bullpen as the team’s second long reliever — and not just for this week. In order to make move for Ross Detwiler’s activation from the disabled list, the Nationals optioned right-hander Erik Davis to Class AAA Syracuse.
After the Nationals released left-handed long reliever Zach Duke, previously the only south paw in the bullpen, right-hander Craig Stammen was the lone reliever would could consistently pitch multiple innings. Johnson liked the security of veteran Ohlendorf and his multi-inning ability, instead of Davis. And as of Thursday’s game, the Nationals have four new faces from opening day. (But that number will likely be three new ones by Sunday, when Stephen Strasburg is slated to return from the disabled list.)
“I’m more concerned with having the number of innings in my bullpen with long guys,” Johnson said. “It’s more of having a role-replacing, more of a one-inning type pitcher with an extra-inning type pitcher.”
The bullpen, now with the promising additions of left-handers Fernando Abad and Ian Krol, is more to Johnson’s liking. This offseason, the Nationals pursued but whiffed at signing left-handers J.P. Howell, and re-signing Michael Gonzalez, Tom Gorzelanny and Sean Burnett. The costs for each of them were high in a market where left-handers command a hefty amount. (Burnett has been injured with the Angels most of the season.) The Nationals believed they could lean on Duke and the reverse splits of their right-handers. They reached a breaking point.
And now, Johnson is much more content with the shape of the bullpen. In their brief time with the Nationals already, Abad and Krol have combined for 12 1/3 scoreless innings. “With their abilities that I have in the ‘pen now, I have a much more balanced ‘pen than at any time in the season which, going forward, makes me sleep better,” Johnson said.
Johnson likes to employ a right- and left-handed long reliever but was comfortable using two right-handers now. He said there hasn’t been much of a need for a left-handed one behind starters who do well against left-handed batters. In a pinch, Abad, who has held left-handed batters to a .200 average, could pitch more than one inning if needed.
Also a consideration in the decision to keep Ohlendorf was his contract. He had an opt-out clause he could trigger midway through the regular season. Johnson suggested that if the Nationals had sent him down after Wednesday’s start, they would have run the risk of losing him. Johnson wouldn’t publicly commit to saying that Ohlendorf would remain beyond Strasburg’s scheduled start on Sunday, but his words suggested it.
Keeping Ohlendorf also give Johnson more flexibility with Stammen, the team’s most versatile reliever. Early this season, Stammen would go several days without pitching because he could give multiple innings. Now, that Ohlendorf can do that, too, Stammen takes on a new load.
“He’s been invaluable, but also in the latter parts of the game where I could use his abilities,” Johnson said.