ST. LOUIS — Ryan Madson thought he could pitch through the back trouble he revealed after Sunday night’s blown save at Wrigley Field. Once he disclosed the problem to the Nationals’ training staff and they executed various treatment and prescribed anti-inflammatories, it became clear to everyone involved that Madson would not be able to help the team immediately.
“He was a little sore today. He went through a bunch of treatment yesterday and said he was still sore,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said. “So I think the DL is the best thing for him.”
Martinez is optimistic the trouble — officially called lumbar nerve irritation — won’t linger, but he and the Nationals have been optimistic before. At this point, every injury feels like a substantial one, particularly one that eliminates one of the few remaining stalwarts from a suddenly barren bullpen. With Kelvin Herrera and Sean Doolittle on the disabled list, Madson was Martinez’s best closing option. Now, he said, his first choice will be Koda Glover — but probably not Tuesday night, because Glover worked back-to-back days for the first time since returning from the injury that cost him four months of this season.
“I talked to Justin Miller today. He’d be the guy. He’s available,” Martinez said. “… He’ll be available to pitch the ninth.”
Miller was not on the Nationals’ roster when they broke camp. In fact, he was not even invited to major league spring training. He is now the Nationals’ primary setup man for the foreseeable future, and their backup closer as the Nationals try to bounce back from two agonizing losses in a row. Such is the extent of this bullpen’s recent shuffling that six staples of the team’s reliever corps are not on the Nationals’ active roster Tuesday. They optioned Sammy Solis to Class AAA Syracuse after his struggles against lefties continued in Monday night’s loss.
Madson joins Herrera and Doolittle on the disabled list. Shawn Kelley and Brandon Kintzler are gone. The Nationals added Tim Collins to replace Solis as the matchup lefty and Trevor Gott to replace Madson, recalling both from Syracuse on Tuesday, but the longest tenured member of the Nationals bullpen is Matt Grace. The most experienced member of the bullpen is Greg Holland. Martinez’s options are limited and somewhat unfamiliar, making the already perilous later innings even more challenging to navigate.
“For me, it’s just managing the games and putting guys in situations where they think they’re going to succeed,” Martinez said. “… We’ve got guys that are qualified to do the job. They’ve just gotta go out there and make pitches. I’ve been talking to all of them about different roles they might have to do, and I just said, ‘Do your best.’ All you can ask them to do is your best.”
Martinez also indicated optimism that his injured relievers would return soon. Doolittle took the most substantial step forward of any of them Tuesday when he threw off a mound for the first time in weeks. The stress reaction in his left foot has not dissipated, though it has improved, and now he is trying to find a way to pitch the rest of the season without causing further trouble — or compensating for the problem in ways that might risk injury to his arm.
“I’m trying a lot of different things based on the angle of the foot I put on the rubber to try to take that torque out of the process,” Doolittle said. “I’ve had mixed results with it so far. I’m trying to get those mechanics to sync up. But at the end of the day, it’s another step in the right direction.”
Doolittle said he’s scheduled for another throwing session in a few days, at which point he will try to harness those mechanical changes and get his delivery in sync. He has been throwing regularly, often from his knees, a process that has kept his arm in shape to the point that the ball is “coming out clean,” as he put it, in his throwing sessions now. Once he feels mechanically ready to pitch, and as long as the foot has no further trouble, he should not need much time to build back into closing shape. But as much as he wants it to be, that time is not yet here.
“I could go out there and throw strikes, I know that right now,” Doolittle said. “But at this point, with where I’m at, I don’t have the same fastball. I’m not the same guy. There’s no point in being a hero if you’re not ready to actually help. I’m making progress, but I don’t feel like I’m at a point in my process yet where I can come back and help, which is frustrating.”
In the meantime, Doolittle spends every game in the bullpen with his teammates. He said he carries water to them, offers suggestions about pitch sequences and does everything he can to help while he works his way back. Until then, this bullpen must find a way to muddle through a week or two without him.
WASHINGTON NATIONALS (60-59)
Adam Eaton RF
Trea Turner SS
Bryce Harper CF
Anthony Rendon 3B
Juan Soto LF
Daniel Murphy 2B
Matt Adams 1B
Matt Wieters C
Gio Gonzalez P
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS (64-55)
Matt Carpenter 1B
Yadier Molina C
Jose Martinez RF
Marcell Ozuna LF
Paul DeJong SS
Jedd Gyorko 3B
Harrison Bader CF
Kolten Wong 2B
John Gant P
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