The Nationals opened the season with a bullpen that contained only one left-handed reliever. Although Manager Davey Johnson dropped hints that he would have preferred a second left-handed reliever, more suited to the way he manages, he explained the Nationals’ public belief that all would be fine. Some of the right-handers in the bullpen, led by Tyler Clippard, were capable of getting left-handed hitters out, along with left-handed long reliever Zach Duke.
It didn’t work. Over the last few weeks, the Nationals have overhauled their bullpen, in large part to address that weakness. After Ryan Mattheus‘s injury and releasing Duke, they brought up two left-handed relievers, Fernando Abad and Ian Krol, and added a third recently, Xavier Cedeno. They finally ended their experiment with Henry Rodriguez by designating him for assignment and trading him. They added a new long reliever, Ross Ohlendorf, after a stellar spot start this week. They are morphing valuable long reliever Craig Stammen into a more versatile role where he can pitch in higher leverage innings when needed.
The eight-man bullpen now has four new faces from opening day — although that number could drop to three once Stephen Strasburg is activated from the disabled list as expected on Sunday. The belief that one left-handed reliever would be enough backfired.
“It certainly didn’t turn out the way we’d hoped,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said Friday. “We thought that Zach would give us more efficient innings when he was called upon and that didn’t work out. That probably put a little too much pressure on Clippard to get out left-handed hitters, although he had gotten left-handed hitters out better than any left-hander in baseball.”
Johnson has said as much recently, suggesting that the original composition of the bullpen wasn’t his preference. The Nationals whiffed at signing at least four left-handed relievers this winter, including three who were on the team last season, Sean Burnett, Tom Gorzelanny and Michael Gonzalez, who went on to sign more lucrative deals with other teams. “I have a much more balanced ‘pen than at any time in the season which, going forward, makes me sleep better,” Johnson said on Thursday.
Now Johnson is afforded more flexibility in his choices late in the game, instead of being handicapped by a struggling Duke and inconsistent Rodriguez. Clippard doesn’t have to face left-handers as much any more, Stammen isn’t the only capable long reliever and Johnson doesn’t have to rely on Drew Storen as much to face left-handed hitters.
“It’s more suited to the way he’s got to manage this bullpen,” Rizzo said. “Don’t forget we’re without Christian Garcia for an extended period of time. We’re without Ryan Mattheus for an extended period of time. Those adjustments on the fly are difficult to make. I think if you take any two guys off of a good bullpen that pitched last year it’s tough for any team to jump right in and have a fully workable, efficient bullpen. We had to go through some growing pains with those couple injuries. I think that we’ve righted ourselves pretty good.”
>>> Ohlendorf said he when the Nationals signed him this offseason to a minor league deal he knew there was a possibility he could land in the bullpen. He pitched in long relief for the New York Yankees in 2008 and once for the San Diego Padres last season. As starter, Ohlendorf has a 4.91 ERA over 392 1/3 innings. In 55 innings as a reliever, he has a 6.05 ERA.”Your wind up for the game is different,” he said. “Need to get back on the routine of getting ready quickly. That’s the main thing. In terms of pitching style, I don’t think I really need to make any adjustments. Just the warm-up process.”
Ohlendorf said he excited to stick around with the Nationals, as was his hope all along. After Wednesday’s start, he knew he was headed back to Syracuse or moving to the bullpen. The opt-out clause in his contract was weeks ago.
>>> Garcia, who is rehabbing at Class AAA Syracuse from the partially torn tendon in his right forearm suffered in spring training, felt soreness in his shoulder and is resting, Johnson said. He described it a “normal” soreness. Garcia has appeared twice for Syracuse, the last outing on June 11. Johnson said Garcia needs to have four to five pain-free, clean outings before he is ready to return.