Our story in today’s birdcage liner outlines the competition for the final spots in the Nationals’ bullpen and vast number of candidates who seem to have a realistic shot to earn one. The competition would be much different if not for Ryan Mattheus’s 2013 season, which started on solid ground as a set-up man and finished in disarray.

A key member of the Nationals’ bullpen during their 2012 division title run and part of last year’s opening day roster, Mattheus knows he will have to compete for his job. He arrived at spring training confident he had left last year behind and eager to prove himself, to show he can still protect seventh-inning leads with a weaponized sinker.

“I know I’ve done what they’re looking for,” Mattheus said. “I just got to go out and do it, show them that I can still do it. I don’t blame anybody but myself for the position I’m in right now, coming in and having to make the team. I’ve never had anything handed to me in this game and I don’t ever expect it, so it’s kind of fun competing for a job.”

“That’s kind of how I perform best, I feel like, when the competition is there, I can’t be complacent. You look at things like that, little things that fuel you from the get-go. I think the competition is going to be fun.”

Mattheus finished last season with a 6.37 ERA over 35 1/3 innings, with 22 strikeouts and 15 walks, a major drop off after he had punched up a 2.84 ERA over 2011 and 2012 combined. But his performance affected him less than the infamous manner in which in torpedoed his own season.

(Photo by Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

Mattheus’s season began as his previous year had left off. Through 13 games, he had allowed four runs in 15 1/3 innings, holding opponents to a .614 OPS. On a Sunday afternoon in San Diego, Mattheus imploded. He yielded five earned runs in one inning. After he stomped into the clubhouse, he punched a locker and broke his right hand. He would miss two months.

“It kind of gave me an edge coming into spring training, like alright, I’m going to prove that I belong there,” Mattheus said. “That’s kind of what I’m doing now. But it was the signing of any guy that did that. It was me not performing the way I wanted to. That’s what’s driving me now, to show everybody that I’m not the guy with the 6.30 ERA that punches lockers. I want to come back and be the guy that can contribute to a very good bullpen.”

Once Mattheus returned last season, his season further unraveled. He felt embarrassed by the way he broke his hand. When he returned, he applied pressure on himself to make up for lost time. In his final 19 games, Mattheus had a 7.58 ERA.

“Walking into the clubhouse to see my teammates, my friends that are battling their butts to try to get back into the pennant race, trying to win the division, and I’m sitting in there trying to fix something that I did myself,” Mattheus said. “Not being able to contribute to winning ballgames, I kind of compare it to when I had Tommy John. But that was something I couldn’t control. This was an injury I had 100 percent control over. It was just tough walking in seeing the guys and knowing, hey, I affected this. I screwed something up here. Seeing guys playing their butts off was tough.”

“I wanted to come and make an impact right away. And I never pitched like that. When I had success, it was just, go out and do what you do. Get guys out and the rest will take care of itself. But I put so much pressure on myself to be good, to pick up a certain workload, it was just counterproductive. I was trying to get six outs when you can only get three. It was that kind of mentality – I wanted to do so much to make up for what I had done instead of just coming back and being consistent again. If I can get back to that, everything will play out in my favor.”

Mattheus remembers feeling the way he does now once before. Before 2012, the best season of his career, the Nationals signed Brad Lidge late in the winter. Mattheus did the math and realized, after an impressive debut the year before, he might be squeezed out of a roster spot. From his first bullpen sessions, Mattheus pitched so well the Nationals had no choice but to put him on the team.

“It kind of gave me an edge coming into spring training,” Mattheus said. “It was like, ‘Alright, I’m going to prove I belong here.’ That’s kind of what I’m doing now.”


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