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Wander Suero is beginning to look like a future Nationals bullpen staple

Wander Suero is establishing himself as a reliable bullpen option. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

ST. LOUIS — After the Nationals traded away Brandon Kintzler, Dave Martinez said part of the reasoning was that Kintzler’s spot would create room for Wander Suero, who the Nationals felt deserved one. He could provide innings Kintzler couldn’t, Martinez explained.

Martinez, of course, had to give the filtered company line, not delve into the finances behind the deal or the front office concerns about Kintzler’s clubhouse presence. But his answer was not at all a lie. The Nationals believed Suero could help their bullpen and wanted to give him a chance to do so regularly.

Suero has pitched to a 3.48 ERA in 31 innings. He is striking out just less than a batter per inning. Importantly for this bullpen, four of his seven appearances since the deadline have required more than one inning.

Suero relieved Jeremy Hellickson after he left Wednesday night’s game with an injury, inheriting a runner at third and 2-2 count on Yadier Molina. Molina singled, but Suero recovered to retire the Cardinals’ No. 3 and No. 4 hitters before allowing another run on two hits in the sixth. That he could not give them more than four outs qualified as a surprise because Martinez and the front office are growing in their faith in the right-hander, who could be positioning himself as a part of future bullpen plans, not just a stopgap.

“I look at Wander Suero, who was a one-inning guy who we kind of forced him into being a multiple-inning guy, and he’s accepted his role and done really well,” Martinez said this week. “Here’s a guy who we didn’t know what he was going to do — they told us he would get lefties out because he has a cutter — but here he is getting lefties and righties out. So it’s good to see.”

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Suero is holding right-handers to a .224 batting average and left-handers to a .213 average. The key in both cases is that cutter, a pitch Suero honed to great effect last year in the minor leagues while pitching to a 1.79 ERA over 54 appearances between Class AA Harrisburg and Class AAA Syracuse. Suero didn’t get a September call-up last year, which qualified as surprising. He did win the organization’s minor league pitcher of the year award. But he has gotten plenty of big league opportunity in his rookie season, and the Nationals seem to have found a weapon.

“My biggest focus, to be honest, is making sure I do my job on the field,” Suero said through team interpreter Octavio Martinez. “I personally believe I have the ability to perform while also helping the team out. But at the same time, I have to make sure I do the work on the field to make sure I earn my spot in the bullpen.”

With Sean Doolittle, Kelvin Herrera and Ryan Madson out with injuries, the Nationals might find themselves relying on Suero more. Until those stalwarts are healthy, Koda Glover will close and Justin Miller will set up. But who gives them the ball remains to be seen, and if they don’t find themselves needing Suero for multiple innings at a time, he could inherit important middle innings. If he does, the 26-year-old knows it will be because of his cutter, which sits in the 91 mph range and moves in on lefties like a hard slider. He is throwing that cutter roughly 78 percent of the time, according to FanGraphs.

“I thank God for blessing me with this pitch, and the reason I say that is because, I’ll be honest, it’s the reason I’m here. It’s what got me here,” Suero said. “I feel like I can do whatever I want with the pitch. I can throw it inside to a right-handed hitter. I can throw it outside. I can elevate it. I can sink it. Even with a 3-2 count, I feel that’s a pitch I can go to because it feels like I have such good control over it and can manipulate it.”

Many elite relievers build careers on one pitch. Doolittle, for example, throws almost entirely fastballs. But when people hear about right-handed relievers who rely heavily, if not exclusively, on cutters, one name comes to mind.

“Reminds me of — well, I know it’s not Mariano [Rivera], but the way the action is on his ball, the way it does something different every time,” Madson said. “I think through repetition, he’ll be able to put it where he wants. And that’s Mariano. For me, that’s exciting to watch.”

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