The Nationals have long believed in Blake Treinen’s talent, pushing him into a set-up role early in the season before he struggled, morphed into a lesser-used long reliever and was eventually sent to Class AAA Syracuse to sort out his troubles. But over the past three weeks of his return, Treinen has looked much different.
In his nine scoreless innings spread over eight appearances, Treinen has allowed only two hits and struck out 10. Most impressive, given his command issues of earlier, is that Treinen has walked only two of the 28 batters he has faced.
“The biggest thing – and I say this with reservation because I don’t want to come across as cocky – but knowing that my stuff is better than the guys I face in the box and believing it,” Treinen said. “… [Before] I was just trying to be too perfect. I think it hurt me. That’s why my walks were high. My focus was on making the perfect pitch as opposed to just making a good pitch, and just trusting what I have is going to play.”
In his 41 innings before being optioned to Syracuse, Treinen had a 4.39 ERA, struck out 44 but walked 21. While at Syracuse, Treinen worked on being aggressive again. Even if he didn’t have his best stuff on a given day, he told himself to attack hitters.
“Going to Syracuse was probably the best thing that could have happened,” he said. “It lets you step back and put things in perspective. Guys down there are going to be more aggressive. And if I can get them to swing and miss and not recognize the slider, I feel like I’m doing something right. It translated and I feel like I brought it up here. Really, I’m just going to try to emulate the success I’ve had so far.”
Since his return, Treinen has also thrown a four-seam fastball more than any point this season. Treinen got to the majors with a high-90s sinker, even touching 99 mph. But relying too much on the two-seam fastball can be too predictable. Left-handed batters hit Treinen hard, the movement of a sinker breaking into their swings. Treinen has used a four-seam fastball more now, a pitch that stays straight and jams hitters. His slider, too, has been better. He has thrown it 33 times since his return and induced 11 whiffs.
“I tried to create where it needed to go instead of just throwing it and letting it do what it’s supposed to do,” Treinen said. “I think that’s the biggest mindset: fastball, drive it down, and it’s worked for me.”
An improved Treinen improves the options in the Nationals bullpen. Aside from giving up a key hit to a left-hander in a tie game in Colorado, he has been used mostly in low-pressure situations since his return. But those are exactly the situations the Nationals need better relief options. Good middle relief, as Craig Stammen provided for years before his injury, is often undervalued. Keeping a deficit manageable, which allows for comebacks, is needed on any good team.