WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — With fewer than two weeks remaining before Opening Day, the question that has buzzed around the Washington Nationals since November remains unanswered: Who is going to close?
“We haven’t really discussed it at any length who it is yet,” Manager Dusty Baker said.
If that is true, he and his coaching staff are the only ones in baseball who haven’t. Should it be Shawn Kelley, more experienced but fragile? Should it be Blake Treinen, the one-pitch wonder? Could it be Koda Glover, the natural and the presumed closer of the future?
“We’ll have a meeting,” Baker said, suggesting that meeting will take place in time to name one man to the closer’s job before Opening Day.
“I believe in giving everybody a vote, [because] that’s what good organizations do. You take all the brains in the room, you get their opinions,” Baker said. “[Pitching coach] Mike [Maddux] is in there with us. And I want everybody to have an opinion. I never want everybody to agree with me, because iron sharpens iron. If you don’t trust the minds that are around you, you’re really just running by yourself, and that’s not how you do things.”
Baker defers to Maddux on all pitching-related questions, including the one asked Tuesday. Is the fact that most of Glover’s recent appearances have come in the ninth inning an indication of the Nationals’ plans?
“You can read into it whatever you want to read into it. That was just his time to pitch,” Baker said. “We know he’s going to be somewhere toward the back end.”
Baker had not even conceded Glover a place in the bullpen before, pointing to him as a player whose performance matters a great deal this spring since he is trying to make the team. Perhaps Baker just meant that Glover’s role, whenever he assumes it at the big league level, will include late-inning duty. But scouts gush about Glover and seem to think he is ready right now. Baker gushes, too — more subtly, though.
“We like us some Koda,” he said Tuesday. “Big time.”
Glover has struck out 11 batters this spring, one behind Stephen Strasburg — who has thrown 4 1/3 more innings — for second on the Nationals. But when Glover received extended major league time late last season, the dominance he displayed during a short minor league career waned. Hindered by what turned out to be a torn labrum in his landing-leg hip, Glover pitched to a 5.09 ERA in 19 games and struck out (just, by his standards) 16 batters in 19 2/3 innings.
Most people within the Nationals organization talk about those numbers as the result of growing, if not actual, pains. The extent to which the pain in his hip affected Glover cannot be determined without a larger sample size, but his return to dominance this spring suggests it played a role in his inconsistency.
Still, Glover is 23 years old. One concern for a player that young is that handing him the job before he is ready — whatever “ready” means — could lead to poor results that cripple his confidence. Though confidence has not been a problem for Glover, who never tiptoes the border with arrogance but has yet to seem rattled either.
“He has the stuff to eventually be [the closer],” Baker said. “We just have to decide: Is he ready? Or not now?”
Baker pointed out that because Glover is pitching the ninth inning, he is normally facing minor league players who have subbed for spring training regulars. His spring results, therefore, come with a caveat.
Kelley, who threw a scoreless inning Tuesday, has now allowed one run in 5 2/3 official innings this spring while accumulating several more innings in minor league games. Treinen has spent most of his time on the minor league side but has not allowed a run in three official appearances. All three closing candidates are compiling strong spring résumés. As difficult as that might make the decision about who will close, Baker wants to make a decision, so as to leave no doubt about roles when the season begins.
● Enny Romero is not considered a candidate to close, at least not at this moment, but he is expected to contend for a spot in the Nationals’ Opening Day bullpen. On Tuesday, he made his first appearance since returning from the World Baseball Classic, where he did not allow a run and did not walk anybody in 2 2/3 innings. For Romero, whose fastball sits in the high-90s, walks have always been a barrier to success. But Baker said Romero looked much sharper all around Tuesday than he did before he left, not only in terms of fastball command but particularly in terms of the feel for his breaking pitches. He allowed a hit and struck out a batter in a scoreless inning in the Nationals’ 3-1 win over the visiting Atlanta Braves.
“When he left camp, he didn’t hardly throw his breaking ball, so you can tell he had been working on it,” Baker said. “You know, to get them off his electric fastball.”
Romero said he spent much of the WBC working with veteran Dominican pitchers Edinson Volquez and Fernando Rodney, who was on his winter league team.
“Rodney’s the guy always helping the young guys. We work in the Dominican together, too,” Romero said. “We play together in Dominican winter ball, and always he’s trying to help me.”
The 26-year-old said he is trying to control his 6-foot-3 frame more as a means to throw more strikes. For years, the knock against Romero has been that he cannot do that, so staying under control is an ongoing process — one that will likely determine his staying power with the Nationals, particularly given that he does not have any options remaining.
“Not trying to do too much with my fastball and my quick pitch and my delivery,” said Romero, when asked about the keys to consistent command. “I try to repeat my delivery every time.”
● Sammy Solis struck out the side in his inning of work, his most dominant performance of what had been a somewhat inconsistent spring.
● Ryan Zimmerman had two more hits Tuesday, and his best-hit ball of the day was caught in deep center field. After he started the spring with an extended hitless streak, Zimmerman’s average has climbed from zero to .303 over the past six games.