But Kelley wasn’t a member of the Nationals after Tuesday for another reason. The Nationals decided not to trade the right-hander — and most everyone else. He even pitched Tuesday. But then he spiked his glove to the ground and glared into the dugout in frustration in the ninth inning of a 21-run game after giving up a two-run home run. Shortly thereafter, Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo informed him he had been designated for assignment.
“It just happened quick,” Kelley said in a telephone interview on Thursday. “I was a little surprised by it, I guess.”
But Kelley said his problem isn’t that Rizzo was quick to discard him. It was the words the organization, led by Rizzo, used to describe Kelley’s out-of-character episode, which the 34-year-old Kelley believes has colored his character unfairly. Rizzo thought Kelley was showing Manager Dave Martinez up. Rizzo called it a “selfish act” and “disrespectful.”
Kelley insisted he didn’t care that he was pitching in a blowout game. He said he figured he was in because he’s pitched in low-leverage situations most of the season. That’s where he stood on the bullpen depth chart. He also hadn’t pitched in five days. He was the most rested. Instead, Kelley said his frustration derived from one umpire telling him to slow down and another to speed up. He got flustered and wondered why nobody had come to his defense.
“What my real frustration was, I had no disrespect or selfishness or not even really an issue pitching in that game,” Kelley said. “Whatever their opinion it is, I hate to be seen as a guy that was showing up his manager or selfish because I’ve played 10 years and I’ve never been that guy. So I don’t think I’d start now. It’s an unfortunate set of circumstances, but it is what it is so I’ll move on and make the best of it.”
Evaluating Kelley’s departure requires including the boiling context surrounding it. The only trade the Nationals made Tuesday was shipping Brandon Kintzler, another veteran reliever, to the Chicago Cubs, a National League contender, for a minor leaguer who isn’t going to help the club anytime soon. The move was executed more for off-field reasons than on-field performance. Further, a report calling the Nationals’ clubhouse “a mess,” which the organization strongly contested, had been published just a couple days earlier. Asked if he was made a scapegoat amid the turmoil, Kelley didn’t want to speculate but acknowledged it was possible.
By all accounts, Kelley was a well-liked, veteran presence in the organization, from the front office on down. Even Martinez said he “respected” Kelley and thinks he “is not a bad person” the day after the blowup. Kelley said he’s received calls from teammates over the last couple days, which “have made me feel really good inside.” But he said he also understands it’s business.
“The relationships as far as the higher-up people, those are probably more on the surface; just because you all work together and you have one goal doesn’t mean you’re going to be buddy-buddy and best friends forever,” Kelley said. “But as far as in the locker room, we were a family and I loved those guys, and I think the feelings were mutual. … I would say my teammates know what I’m about and what I stand for.”
Kelley was still in Washington on Thursday, waiting to see what’s next. The Nationals have seven days to trade Kelley, place him on waivers or release him. If a team claims him off waivers, it would take on his remaining salary. If he’s not claimed or traded, Kelley will be released and the Nationals will remain on the books for the rest of his salary.
However it happens, Kelley will move on to another team. He has rebounded from disastrous 2017 season — one in which he had the highest home run rate in baseball and a 7.27 ERA — to post a 3.34 ERA and 0.959 WHIP. That’s not as good as he was in 2016, when he was one of the best setup men in baseball, but he can help another club. He thought that was a possibility all along. The path there, however, was unexpected.
“As a person, an official of the ballclub that runs the team, [Rizzo] has the right to do what he wants,” Kelley said. “So I have to just deal with it and move on. But I think we’ll all be better in the end and everybody will be happy and it’ll all work out. So that’s kind of my mentality.”
Soto takes home another honor
Juan Soto, the youngest player in the majors, was named National League Rookie of the Month for July on Tuesday. Soto also won the award for June, his first full month as a major leaguer. The 19-year-old outfielder led NL rookies in batting average (. 299) and on-base-plus-slugging percentage (. 924) among other categories. He reached base safely in 21 of 25 games. . . .
Martinez said Stephen Strasburg played catch on flat ground from 90 feet on Wednesday and will do so again before throwing off a mound. Martinez hinted that he expects Strasburg will need a rehab start before returning. The right-hander hasn’t pitched since July 22 after going on the disabled list with a cervical nerve impingement in his neck. Erick Fedde also is playing catch on flat ground from 90 feet, according to Martinez, and could soon begin throwing off a mound. Fedde has been on the disabled list with right shoulder inflammation since July 5.
Jose Peraza SS
Scooter Gennett 2B
Joey Votto 1B
Eugenio Suarez 3B
Mason Williams RF
Preston Tucker LF
Tucker Barnhart C
Tyler Mahle P
Billy Hamilton CF
Adam Eaton RF
Trea Turner SS
Anthony Rendon 3B
Bryce Harper CF
Juan Soto LF
Matt Adams 1B
Daniel Murphy 2B
Matt Wieters C
Max Scherzer P