When Mike Maddux walked into the visitors’ clubhouse in Philadelphia last Friday, he couldn’t understand why his entire pitching staff giggled. The usual hitter footage was on the television screen at the front of the clubhouse. His staple Las Vegas Baseball Academy sweatshirt had no remnants of breakfast down its front.
“I guess the joke’s on me,” said Maddux, not one to expend much energy avoiding laughs at his expense.
“Actually, Mad Dog,” Shawn Kelley said. “The joke is literally on us.”
A few seconds later, Maddux noticed the logo on their navy blue sweatshirts: Las Vegas Baseball Academy, just like the one on the crew neck he wears almost daily. The pitching staff roared with laughter.
“I loved it,” the Nationals’ pitching coach said. “… I see some of the guys still wearing them. It’s cozy.”
Maddux’s meetings are a staple of each series, a time for him to review the opposing lineup and pass on scouting reports to interested starters and relievers. But there is only so much Maddux can pass along in meetings, only so much he can control through preparation.
Behind the laughs sits an unsettling early April reality. His Nationals’ bullpen has the second-highest ERA in the National League. It has allowed nine home runs in 29 1/3 innings. Opponents have compiled a .956 on-base-plus-slugging percentage against Nationals relievers, third highest in the majors. Every reliever who has thrown more than two innings has allowed at least two runs.
“In spring training we try to do what we can to prepare guys to go back-to-back days and go two innings, but you’re not really throwing three out of four, and it’s all in a controlled environment,” Maddux said. “Stakes are higher now. The guys have a little more adrenaline. In due time, it’s going to iron itself out.”
No one wants to hear that, of course. “I told you so” has always been a greater source of personal fulfillment than “give it time.” After the Nationals’ front office whiffed on a big-name closer this offseason, the bullpen again fell under scrutiny.
Internally, the Nationals worried as much about depth this winter as they did about that ninth inning. Everyone from veteran Joe Blanton – Wednesay’s home run victim – to attack-first Sammy Solis has struggled with home runs, walks or both.
“If we pitch to not walk people, we’re going to walk people,” Maddux said when asked what, if anything, he can say to rectify the trouble. “We pitch aggressively. We pitch to get guys out. We don’t pitch to the negative.”
Positivity is a part of this bullpen, which seems to have endless T-shirt ideas inspired by endless inside jokes born of innings upon innings spent sitting in front of the Chick-fil-A sign. The relievers also have T-shirts with a three-fingered hand on the back — a tribute to bullpen coach Dan Firova, who lost a finger in an accident in high school and is a good sport about it all.
the bullpen after the Wieters home run pic.twitter.com/dKD7rFJVG0
— Danny (@recordsANDradio) April 12, 2017
“I think Davey [Lopes] said last year, ‘first year in the big leagues and you’ve already got a T-shirt?’ ” said Firova, a longtime manager in the Mexican League before Manager Dusty Baker offered him the bullpen job. “I guess they like me … or something. I have fun with it, too.”
Firova took over as bullpen coach last year, when a new wave of relievers such as Kelley, Oliver Perez, Solis and Blake Treinen became key cogs.
“Even with the other guys in the bullpen, like the catchers and [Firova], we’ve tried to create a really nice group,” Perez said. “We understand the season; guys will have ups and downs. We stay together.”
“It’s not like that weird professional thing where you’re forced to hang out with these guys,” Solis said. “We’re having a great time.”
Some will cringe at the notion that bullpen chemistry means anything in the face of such a troublesome start, but the fact is this: They will not be able to overhaul this bullpen entirely, even if 10 days would be a large enough sample size to spur a remodel. Perhaps they can add at the trade deadline. But for the most part, the Nationals are betting on this group to bond and grow.
The Nationals treasure Treinen and Solis and see a future lockdown man in Koda Glover. They believe they can straighten out Enny Romero’s command issues and saw flashes this spring of what can happen when they do. Treinen, Solis and Glover all point to Kelley, Perez and now Blanton as experienced voices who help them maintain perspective.
This bullpen, which last season absorbed four months of Jonathan Papelbon’s struggles while getting only two of Mark Melancon’s steadiness, finished with the second-best ERA in baseball. The Nationals replaced Matt Belisle with Blanton, and instead of Yusmeiro Petit and Marc Rzepczynski, they have Romero and Glover. The raw talent levels have not dipped. The experience level has dipped. Unfortunately, experience is rarely accumulated without bruises.
“Early in the year, if you give up runs, you look up there and you have a 10 or 12 ERA,” said Treinen, who is a first-year closer and third-year reliever but the longest-tenured member of this bullpen. “Everybody thinks you’re the worst pitcher alive.”
Kelley said he has tried to communicate to the other relievers that a tough stretch such as would not seem so ominous if it happened midseason. The relievers consider him the bullpen ring leader, and he considers himself “the T-shirt thinker guy,” the one who filters through the many jokes told and polls for potential ideas. Asked how ideas find their way onto a cotton-polyester blend so fast, Kelley smiled.
“I’ve got a guy,” he laughed, identifying his connection only as a “superfan” whose relative superpower is getting T-shirts printed and shipped within the week.
Last year, Kelley planned to release a four-shirt summer collection, though it did not quite materialize. Now, that three-fingered hand might as well be the bullpen’s logo, plastered on the back of one of the most recent additions to the collection as if it were a brand name.
Solis, who has already had to answer questions about poor outings and defend the talent in the bullpen more than he did last season, has a particular affinity for one of the more recent additions to the T-shirt collection. He has worn it so often that the light-gray shirt with the red writing is already shrinking in the wash, so he hopes Kelley will put in another order soon.
That three-fingered hand the relievers wave when someone homers is printed on the back. On the front, the shirt reads, “Relievers are people too.”
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