WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — On Sunday, the final day before Nationals position players reported to spring training, Manager Dave Martinez, pitching coach Derek Lilliquist and bullpen coach Henry Blanco held the last of their individual meetings with pitchers. They talked about strengths and weaknesses with each player. They inquired about their goals and routines, making sure they were doing what they needed to.

The sessions were particularly important for Lilliquist, who has spent the past couple weeks getting to know his pitching staff. What has he found out?

“Probably the best group in terms of staff that I’ve been a part [of] at this point in spring training,” Lilliquist said.

Lilliquist, who turns 52 on Tuesday, is overseeing a staff with few question marks. There’s competition for the fifth spot in the rotation and a couple vacant spots in the bullpen. That’s it. Besides that, the Nationals have a formidable quartet in the starting rotation and three quality relievers at the back end of the bullpen.

It is far from the tumult that enveloped the Nationals’ pitching staff last season, when Max Scherzer’s fractured knuckle had him throwing three-fingered fastballs, Stephen Strasburg was coming off a concerning elbow injury, Tanner Roark was preparing for the World Baseball Classic and there wasn’t a bona fide closer on the roster.

Lilliquist has inherited a much more stable situation topped by two of the top three finishers in last year’s National League Cy Young race. Max Scherzer, the reigning two-time-defending winner, began his spring with a couple 60-pitch bullpen sessions. Stephen Strasburg, last season’s third-place finisher, has gone about his business in a more efficient manner, a continuation of the adjustment he made to cut pitches when possible last season. When it comes to the two veteran aces, Lilliquist emphasized he is taking a hands-off approach.

“They have their routines, and I’m just here to facilitate,” Lilliquist said. “I’m here for them. They have everything they need. Go get them. They’re veterans. They know what they need.”

For Scherzer, Lilliquist will have more of an impact later in the year.

“It doesn’t affect me until the middle of the season, until we’re really diving into the scouting reports,” Scherzer said of the pitching coach change. “Understanding what he sees about hitters and what I see about hitters and coming together, making it work. How you prepare for young guys, how you prepare for veterans. Basically, who’s right.”

But others have already tapped into Lilliquist as a resource. Relief pitcher Brandon Kintzler, said he talked about his sinker with Lilliquist, a sinker expert. They spoke the same language. Kintzler came away encouraged by the possibilities.

“He’s very detailed,” Martinez said. “He’s passionate about what he does, and he’s passionate about every pitcher. So he’s got something for every pitcher individually, and also some key points as a group. He’s built this relationship already with the pitchers. I can see them conversing, working on different things. It’s fun to watch.”


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