Ryan Madson admitted he only had five or 10 good pitches left by the time he took the mound in the eighth inning of Wednesday’s eventual 11-5 loss at Citi Field. Madson is a workhorse, the kind of guy who wants the ball as often as his arm feels capable of throwing it even, as on Wednesday, if it means working three days in a row. But after he allowed six runs Wednesday, he admitted he ran out of gas. He isn’t the only Nationals reliever to feel that way recently.
Brandon Kintzler worked three days in a row last week, too — though he, like Madson, told his manager he was available for the third. Shawn Kelley threw back-to-back days and warmed up on the third. Sammy Solis threw three out of four days and warmed up three times on the fourth. Sean Doolittle threw three out of four days.
Five Nationals relievers have appeared in at least nine games, which is not the most in the majors. The Angels have six. A handful of teams — including the Mets and Braves — have used four relievers nine times, and they have played one or more fewer games than the Nationals as of Thursday. Until Wednesday, the Nationals played 11 straight games decided by four runs or fewer.
“Most guys who have been up for a while know that’s how it is. It’ll come in waves. All of a sudden, we’ll score a lot of runs and we’ll be cruising, and then we’ll be like ‘oh, I haven’t pitched in four days’ and we’ll be complaining about that,” Madson said. “As a bullpen guy, you know it works that way. We should have pitched better when we were starters.”
Madson said he volunteers for “some pretty crazy stuff,” but pitching in 11 of 19 games is probably not what he had in mind. Martinez had few options Wednesday, and the ones he had were exhausted. The Nationals hoped moving A.J. Cole to the bullpen would provide someone to eat innings in weeks such as this, but Cole has struggled in two outings. The other reliever who’s appeared in fewer than nine games is Kelley, who cannot withstand such a workload. But with warming up almost daily, he has had to shoulder it anyway.
“It’s hard. You want to make sure you keep these guys fresh and healthy,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said. “There’s a whole lot of communication. I want to know where you’re at. I say ‘hey, I might not always come to you, but I want you to come to me every day and tell me how you’re feeling.’ They all do it. I told them from the beginning, we need to be on the same page. If you need to get a day off, you’re going to get a day off.”
“A lot of times Davey will come to you and say ‘wear tennis shoes down there. You can wear flip-flops if you want. We’re not gonna call your name,’ ” Kintzler said. “[Tuesday, which became his third straight day of work], I went to them and said I was ready to go. I felt strong. I knew it was a big game. I just wanted to let them know. But they always come and ask, but if you’re down, they definitely let you know. In a lot of other situations, I’ve had to be the guy that chases people down.”
Kintzler and Madson, interviewed separately, said the same thing: If they and their fellow relievers are mechanically sound, working so often doesn’t tax the body. But mechanics are a work in progress, something everyone wrestles constantly, and when they are out of whack, overuse taxes more than just the arm.
Madson describes the tired feeling as “sticky,” a word he explained as Gio Gonzalez chuckled at the lingo at a locker nearby. When he is sticky, he knows he needs to rest.
“Sticky is a good word. Sticky — where it doesn’t feel loose and free,” Madson said. ” If you pull on a rubber band for four or five days in a row, pretty soon that rubber band is going to have cracks in it. You need a little extra olive oil in it or something — or a day off. … But it still doesn’t feel good [to sit out] when it doesn’t go our way. If I ask for a day and it didn’t go good, I don’t feel good. It’s a tricky thing.”
Madson said he would encourage younger pitchers who are fully healthy to take the ball at any turn. His mind-set comes from his time with the Phillies under Manager Charlie Manuel — who Madson called “the best manager ever” — but who was not as understanding about needing days off. One day, Madson told his manager he needed a day off. He was sticky. The next day, Manuel asked him if his vacation was over yet.
“I was like ‘oof, gosh.’ That was the first time I ever asked for a day off. So it kind of bit me a little bit. I didn’t want to do it for a while after that,” Madson said. “But now, I think they trust me that if I say I need a day, I need a day.”
Solis isn’t exactly a young pitcher, he is far less experienced than Kintzler or Madson, but said he has already learned the importance of asking for days when he needs them. He is pushing himself this spring, and could need more than Thursday’s scheduled day off to recover. He said he’s found Martinez more than open to his feelings about when he can pitch and when he can’t. Martinez is well aware of Solis’s history with Tommy John surgery and nerve trouble in his throwing elbow.
“The worst thing you can do is push through something and end up on the DL. Especially in my case, that’s happened before,” Solis said. “I’ve been in pain almost and I’ve said I’m going to keep throwing and throwing and throwing. Then it becomes a much bigger issue. For me, I’m trying to communicate with them as much as possible.”
Communication is the buzzword with this bullpen, though it doesn’t always ensure that everyone feels comfortable. Sometimes workload just can’t be helped. Sometimes, as Sean Doolittle explained Tuesday night, more frequent work actually fosters rhythm instead of fatigue. But because this is baseball, and because relievers have ample time to sit and analyze their unorthodox baseball lives, workload is a constant topic of conversation — even if conversation yields no easy solutions.
“I feel like that’s what it’s been since we got traded over. It’s funny. We’re out there laughing like, ‘just another knee-slapper.’ Every game is 3-1 or 3-2,” Kintzler said. “But that’s why we’re here. Obviously, you’d like to take your breaks, but we have to get back and win some games. So if that’s what we need to do to win games, we have to suck it up and pitch.”