The memories have faded somewhat now, but the scars of the Nationals’ three-plus months of bullpen debacle linger, preserved most prominently in statistics.
For the first half of the season, the Nationals had the worst bullpen in the majors, by ERA, by batting average against and by antacids required. Their relievers blew 14 saves by the all-star break, and their 5.62 ERA in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings was the worst in the majors by nearly half a run.
The Nationals acquired Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle from Oakland on July 15, and Brandon Kintzler seconds before the July 31 trade deadline. By doing so, they added more than $6 million in prorated salary to this year’s payroll, and nearly $12 million to next year’s books. While Kintzler will be a free agent after this season, Madson is under contract through 2018, and Doolittle is under control through 2019.
Since Madson and Doolittle physically joined the Nationals in Anaheim on July 17, no team in the National League has a lower ERA in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. The unit that once looked like their downfall now qualifies as a strength as the Nationals approach the October postseason, hoping this bullpen can withstand the pressure in a way their previous bullpens never could.
Here, we share the moments that changed the Nationals bullpen and their season so dramatically through the voices of those who lived them. Together, they create a detailed chronology of how the Nationals confronted a demoralizing problem, then found a way to fix it.
July 15, 2017: Things fall apart … again
By the time the Nationals reconvened for their first series after the all-star break — a four-game set in Cincinnati — the script was well-worn. Build a lead. Pull the starter. Blow the lead. Try to score enough to survive.
But when the Nationals built a 10-0 lead over the Reds on July 15, they should have felt safe. Instead, they had to panic, and saw a 10-run lead become a three-run lead by the bottom of the ninth. Not 12 hours later, they had acquired Madson and Doolittle.
Nationals Manager Dusty Baker: “I knew we needed some help a long time ago. But there wasn’t much help available at that time. Now that night in Cincinnati, that night didn’t precipitate the trade because you just can’t make a trade that quick like that. But those things can happen in sports. It’s not the first time it’s happened. To tell you the truth, I didn’t even remember that night in Cincinnati. It’s kind of a blur right now. I try not to think of those nights.”
With a double-digit lead on July 15, Baker figured it was enough to turn things over to just-called-up rookie Austin Adams — one of those elite-stuff, work-in-progress command types the Nationals figured they’d give a big league shot in their sputtering bullpen. After a leadoff error, Adams walked a man, hit a man, then walked in a run. A single scored another run. Adams’s major league debut ended with an infinity ERA, one he would carry back to the minors and sit on for weeks before getting his next big league chance.
Austin Adams: “You work so hard to get to that point where you get called up and then you get put into a very favorable opportunity, a favorable situation, to completely lay an egg.”
Fellow rookie Trevor Gott, also called up to provide a fresh face and fresh hope, then allowed five runs without recording an out in the ninth. Ultimately, Matt Grace got three outs to stem what felt like unnecessary agony.
Nationals reliever Matt Grace: “I don’t remember it being really different or out of the norm for a standard win. But yeah, I remember that game. We were up 10-0? … I don’t really remember anything outstanding.”
Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo: “It wasn’t that specific day. It was a culmination of nights up to that. But there were a couple of late phone calls that night.”
One of those calls went to Oakland Athletics Executive Vice President Billy Beane.
Billy Beane: “Mike’s a really competitive guy, but in the same sense he’s very levelheaded. What happened [that night in Cincinnati] had been going on. We’d seen it in Oakland. They’d almost had one against us on that Sunday where it was like 11-2 on that Sunday and we made it 11-10. He had plenty of those games beforehand and didn’t let it affect him.
“At that point, I didn’t feel any desperation. I knew he was going to get a guy, but it wasn’t like, we’ve got this guy over a barrel now. Mike’s a little more cagey than that. He might be competitive and emotional, but he knows how to put on his businessman hat, and he does so effectively.”
Sean Doolittle: “[Longtime MLB reporter] Ken Rosenthal, he put out a tweet that said something about the Nationals were getting close or they were engaging in serious talks, I forget the exact phrasing, but that happened right before the game. That would’ve been on Saturday night. Yeah. My phone was blowing up.”
Mike Rizzo: “I brought [the deal] to ownership saying, we need to do this deal now. We can’t wait until the trade deadline. If we wait ’til the trade deadline, then we’re trading from the place of disadvantage. We’re going to seem desperate. When we went in for one of them and came out with both of them, which is what we wanted, we felt we had played a good strategy. That made our trade deadline.”
Long before that night in Cincinnati, trouble had been percolating. The Nationals had entered the offseason with one clear need — a closer — but didn’t acquire one. They lost out on Kenley Jansen despite offering him more money than the Los Angeles Dodgers. Mark Melancon got a sweetheart offer from the Giants to commit to San Francisco. Aroldis Chapman’s off-field issues concerned them.
So as of spring training, the Nationals had no set closer, and every time they named one, that man would struggle, get injured or some combination of both. Blake Treinen never regained his 2016 form. Koda Glover could not stay healthy. Shawn Kelley wasn’t the same. Matt Albers became the most consistent reliever in their bullpen, relied on to finish games more often than he or the Nationals had ever anticipated. Albers did not make their Opening Day roster.
The blown leads tested patience, stirred frustration in the clubhouse, and left Dusty Baker publicly soliciting help almost daily. The one flaw in the foundation of an otherwise championship-caliber team was threatening to topple the whole thing.
Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth: “I remember everyone talking going into the season that we had a lot of holes and we didn’t make any moves. I was confident then that we were going to do something when all that rhetoric was going around. We missed out and all that stuff. I was confident that Mike was going to get something done when the time was right.”
Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman: “Everybody talks about windows and your chances. I think we’re definitely in that window. We don’t know what’s going to happen with [Bryce Harper] or [Anthony Rendon] or this guy after next year [pointing to Daniel Murphy’s locker]. So we got a good group of guys now and I think ownership knows that as well. Sometimes you got take some chances or do something different that economics-wise maybe wasn’t in the plans.”
Mike Rizzo: “We’d begun the process early on, in the beginning of the season. We started exploring things probably in mid-May. As soon as we had a couple of the bullpen guys go down, we knew we were gonna need some type of help. We started our exploring of different guys. We were making lists, preparing stuff for ownership. We have a plan just about every year. Every budget cycle, every payroll cycle, we put in a trade deadline item on our payroll.”
“I’m in constant communication with the pro scouts who are seeing all the players. I say, ‘This is the type of guy we’re looking for. I want a guy who can pitch the seventh. A guy with closing experience.’ Whatever the criteria is. Whatever the filter is. Then I’m looking at games all the time, looking at film all the time. We’ve got technology where I saw all 10 guys on our list pitch every day. It’s easy. You just pop on, I want to see Joe Smith — you can see every time they pitch. So leading up to the deadline, we watched them every day. I kept up on that.”
Rizzo kept a particularly close eye on Madson, whom he’d watched many times through the years, and Doolittle, whom he’d seen play at the University of Virginia. As rumors picked up that the Athletics were selling off key pieces like all-star Sonny Gray, Rizzo began further research.
Dusty Baker: “A couple days before they had asked me if I knew them. I didn’t know Doolittle. I had seen Madson but I hadn’t seen him in a while. You know, we saw Madson out there in Oakland and we kind of roughed him up that one day.”
Sean Doolittle: “I probably would’ve gotten traded in ’16 if I was healthy, but I was on the DL around the middle of the season … So it was in the back of my mind. It was really far in the back of my mind. My fiancee [now his wife] and I talked about if we do get traded we got to get this storage unit packed up and this packed up. So we had talked about the logistics of it a little bit. But nothing kind of prepares you for that when it actually does happen.”
Ryan Madson: “It was a weird time because [catcher Stephen] Vogt had just left and that was the heart of the team. It was like, okay, this house might be crumbling. So that’s what kind of gave us a heads up. Then of course Sonny, he was in rumors.”
Sean Doolittle: “Playing for Oakland, you get used to hearing a lot of rumors. My name had been in a lot of rumors. There was even a rumor, I think it was a day or two before. It was close. It was around that time where there was a rumor that Sonny was scratched from his start. We all thought he was scratched from his start. We saw him go out to the field. That was a really weird day.”
Billy Beane: “[The deal didn’t include Doolittle] until probably the last 36 hours of the deal. Maybe even less than that. Sean had been hurt for part of the time we had been having conversations. He really didn’t become an option for them. In fairness, too, if Mike was considering both of them early on, he had to make sure Sean was a) not on the disabled list and b) throwing well. So I’m sure that’s when he started thinking about the possibility.
“Quite frankly, if I say 36 hours, I’m probably adding some time. Again, I think we couldn’t quite find the right match for one reliever. When he added the other, it allowed us to be a little more aggressive in our add, and he was a little more willing. It might even be 24 hours. A lot of our deals between me and Mike have been like that.”
Just before the Nationals’ game against the Reds Sunday afternoon, word broke that they had acquired Madson and Doolittle from the Athletics in exchange for Treinen, minor league left-hander Jesus Luzardo and minor league infielder Sheldon Neuse. Everyone had been waiting for the Nationals to make a move. Everyone had expected the Nationals to make a move. They finally did.
Nationals catcher Matt Wieters: “You come into the clubhouse and you see Treinen get called into the office and you think that was a little bit strange at that time. You thought it was maybe a possibility there.”
Sean Doolittle: “I didn’t pitch [Saturday] night, and the next morning — we had a day game the next day — I’m going through my normal morning routine for the day game. Bob [Melvin] asked me to come to his office, which in itself wasn’t weird because he had a pretty open door. He’d ask me to go in there. We’d talk a lot about a lot of different things. And we had had some weird bullpen usage the night before. Just wasn’t our normal way of slicing up so I thought he wanted to talk about that. I had my heat pack on and I’m ready to go, starting my morning routine and I turn the corner and our GM was sitting in the office so I was like, ‘Oh, all right. Where?’ ”
Ryan Madson: “I just got the call. And they said, ‘Okay, you gonna show up to the field?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll be there in a little bit.’ [Just showed up, said goodbye.] It was weird. It was awkward.
“I knew it was going to be tough for [Doolittle] because he had been there forever. I knew it was going to be hectic for me, but it wasn’t going to be emotional. But I knew it was going to be emotional for him. I just said, ‘Hey, I know it’s tough for you doing this.’ Those awkward moments in the clubhouse after — it was awkward for me. It brought us closer, too. Just going through it together brought us closer.”
Sean Doolittle: “It was kind of like a whirlwind of emotions that I kind of forget exactly what was said but [GM David Forst] thanks me for my time here and he was like, ‘Yeah, Mike Rizzo’s going to call you in five minutes.’ Madson hadn’t gotten to the field yet so it was just me in there by myself at that point. I talked to Bob for a while after that.
“Then, like, this was probably like 9:30, 10 o’clock before a 1 o’clock game. The team’s eating breakfast but I’m getting phone calls from Mike so I had to step out of the clubhouse and then I hung up with Mike and got a call from Rob, the traveling secretary and we started working on logistics. I started packing up my bag while these guys are getting ready to play a game. They’re getting ready to out onto the field to play catch, warm up. And I’m packing up my locker. It was a weird dynamic. Weird.”
Madson and Doolittle joined the Nationals in Anaheim two days later.
Sean Doolittle: “We were in Oakland and they were in Cincinnati. And they were like, ‘You could take the red-eye but you land in Cincinnati at 6:30 for a noon game and then we fly back to the west coast.’ They were like, ‘Just meet us in Anaheim … [Madson] drove down because he’s got five kids. He was juggling some other moving parts there.”
“I had a Southwest flight [out of Oakland]. Just a quick shot down to Southern California. It was late, the flight was probably at like 8 o’clock.”
Jayson Werth: “After playing with Madson for so long in Philadelphia, obviously I know him really well. I spent a lot of time with him. My first reaction was I was excited to be reunited with him. I immediately text him right away.”
Ryan Madson: “It just felt like such a big promotion. I know it’s the same league. But it felt like a really big promotion, and I felt really grateful. What a gift it was. I felt like I got called up to the big leagues.”
In his first outing as a National, Madson hit 99 miles per hour, the hardest he had thrown as a professional since 2009. He and Doolittle worked the eighth and ninth innings in the Nationals’ 3-2 win over the Angels that night. Doolittle endured some adventure, but got the save. Afterward, he promised “they won’t all be like that.” That save was the first of 21 straight converted chances to begin his Nationals career.
The Nationals’ back-end overhaul could have ended and been considered a considerable upgrade. Washington had accumulated a 3.49 bullpen ERA in 12 games since Doolittle and Madson joined the club in Anaheim. It was a small sample size, but an encouraging immediate improvement following a half-season of unrelenting angst. Three days after acquiring Howie Kendrick from the Phillies, Mike Rizzo remained unsatisfied. He stayed in Washington on deadline day to facilitate the final deal with his front office.
His team, meanwhile, was in Miami with a 62-41 record and a 13-game lead in the National League East. Players watched the final minutes of trade season on MLB Network in the visitors’ clubhouse at Marlins Park as they prepared to face their closest competition in a lousy division. They reacted to each deal unveiled on television, wondering if Washington would join the fray before 4 p.m. They had to wait until five minutes after the deadline to see the Kintzler news leak on Twitter.
Ryan Zimmerman: “I knew they were going to try to get more.”
Twins General Manager Thad Levine: “I think we were one of the teams that was in a surprise position relative to where it was expected to be and where it actually was. So the first move we made in the trade deadline was we acquired Jaime Garcia from the Atlanta Braves. Literally, I want to say it was six or seven days later after the acquisition of Jaime Garcia, during that six-game stretch, the Cleveland Indians went 6-0, the Kansas City Royals went 6-0 and we did not. So we went from being maybe 1 ½, 2 games out of first place and very prominently placed in the wild card discussion to being in third place and not in as advantageous a position.”
Matt Wieters: “It was kind of a strange trading deadline.”
Brandon Kintzler: “I just kind of sensed it because we were starting to lose a lot of games. I sort of had a feeling, our last game in Oakland, I just had a feeling. I said, ‘Guys, hey, I think this is my last game.’ Even on the flight, [Taylor] Rogers who I sit next to, I was like, ‘It was nice playing with you.’ I just kind of knew. You could kind of tell the front office, the feeling that they had when they said, ‘Kansas City and Cleveland did us a favor by going on a run.’ Then they traded Jaime Garcia. I didn’t know what kind of market I’d have. I didn’t expect to be here.”
Mike Rizzo: “That was the only thing that made it possible to get Kintzler at the deadline, was to already have two [other reliable relievers]. Then it was like, ‘Yeah, we’ll take him at the right deal, but we’re not desperate. We’ve already got two.’ So that strategy early on I think helped us on the return and definitely helped us get Kintzler.”
Thad Levine: “I don’t exactly remember exactly which date that was on Jaime, but that’s when we started reengaging with teams that had expressed in a similar light, ‘Hey, if you guys consider selling, count us interested.’ It wasn’t necessarily just Kintzler. There were a few players that teams showed kind of a consistent interest in.”
Mike Rizzo: “As you know, for the trade deadline, the deadline is the deadline. The deal has to be done. There’s no extra time for medicals. No time to figure it out later. You have to have the medical deals and everything done by the deadline. We had discussions going with three other teams besides Minnesota at the same time. We pivoted to Minnesota right at the deadline because we felt this was the best option for us.”
Thad Levine: “We were more specifically aware that they had an interest in Kintzler and that was something that they had verbalized in one of the conversations we had more initially under the guise of, ‘Hey, if you guys get to a point where you consider selling, count us as interested in Kintzler.’ But they didn’t want to sound presumptive in saying we were going to sell. It wasn’t until we called them back and told them we are now going down that path. Let’s now roll up our sleeves and gauge where your actual level of interest is.”
Trading for bullpen help is the most common pursuit for teams every year. Contending teams with good bullpens want to make their bullpens great. Contending teams with bad bullpens are desperate. Bad teams capitalize on both to flip coveted relievers for the best possible hauls.
The 2017 reliever market didn’t match the 2016 inventory’s prestige. Three all-star relievers — Andrew Miller, Chapman and Melancon — were traded to bolster playoff-bound relief corps last season. That was an anomaly.
The most high-profile reliever rumored to have been on the market this summer was Baltimore Orioles closer Zach Britton, and he stayed put. Still, in an age of expanding bullpen usage, particularly in the postseason, relievers remained valued commodities. On July 31 alone, nine relievers were dealt in nine separate trades. Kintzler was the final one moved in exchange for minor league left-hander Tyler Watson and international bonus pool money.
Mike Rizzo: “You’re negotiating in that last minute. Sometimes you yell. Sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you get him. Sometimes the deal goes away. But you’ve gotta make a deal. When you make it, and you have a grinder of a deal, you have to get the doctors involved, the medicals involved, MRIs and everything.
“You try to do it all as early as you can. It’s hard to get the doctors involved because you have the groundwork. Sometimes you have to get your medical people on it. Sometimes you just have to make a deal. With Kintzler, we got some medical reports. Our trainers discussed it. Our doctors took a quick look at it. But we had to make a decision on it. So we had to take the risk.”
Thad Levine: “Let’s put it this way: I don’t think they delayed letting you guys know by too long. It was a decision that really came down to the wire that was really more us than them just because we were a little late in the process to engage the industry on Brandon.”
Mike Rizzo: “He was not an analytics favorite. They said that. Of course. Once we decided that he was a guy we would target, then we discussed him and they gave their input. But we had three of our best scouts see him, and they gave outstanding grades on him, outstanding scouting reports on him. Sometimes you go with the analytics reports to decide on a trade. Sometimes you go to the scouting reports to decide a trade. It’s a perfect world when they mesh. That’s an easy decision. Our scouting reports were so strong on this guy, and the comments on his makeup and that kind of thing were so dramatic — they trumped any analytical concerns.”
Brandon Kintzler: “I went back to the hotel after the zoo. When I was at the hotel, a lot of guys came and saw me. I was downstairs. At least I got to say goodbye to most people. Or they texted me.”
Dusty Baker: “I hadn’t seen Kintzler at all. But I liked his story. I knew that he wasn’t afraid. He had nothing to lose. He’s the independent league pinup boy as far as I’m concerned. And you know this guy, you know he ain’t scared because he’s been in the bushes.”
Mike Rizzo: “I just appreciate how he got here. He had to claw his way to this point. He’s playing with house money. He’s a guy who had probably the toughest road to the All-Star Game of anyone in the game. That appealed to me. His grit appealed to me. And as we start next Friday, when the lights get brighter, I think those guys are able to shine because they’ve been through it. It’s like when they tell the story about Livan Hernandez. He was such a clutch pitcher. Well, he floated here on a door, so the World Series wasn’t a big deal to him. That’s how I think about it.”
Thad Levine: “Our guys in the field liked [Watson] out of the draft. They liked his arsenal and then our analytics guys felt that there are a lot of indicators about him that could spell long-term success as a starter and that’s an area that we were focused on at the trade deadline.”
Mike Rizzo: “I remember talking to [Daniel Murphy] about what we do in the offseason. I told him, I felt like the team we had in the winter, going into spring training, was definitely a playoff-contending team. My goal is to always have a team that can win 90 games. That puts you in the race. So in the winter, we had a 90-win team, with the bullpen as it stood. I’ve always thought, in the offseason you build yourself a playoff-contending team. A division-winning team. At the deadline, you make yourself a World Series team.”
Brandon Kintzler: “I always thought they were too big of a stage. I wasn’t a big name. It seemed like the Nationals wanted big names. Maybe being an all-star helped my case to be able to come on a stage like this. I was shocked, but grateful for the opportunity. For a team like this, at that time, they’d basically already made the playoffs. So they just handed me a ticket to the playoffs and said basically, ‘We need you to help us get to the promised land.’ ”
Kintzler joined the team in Miami and made his Nationals debut there, tossing 1 ⅓ scoreless innings in a 7-0 loss on Aug. 2. But the Nationals’ new three-layered bullpen remedy wasn’t put to the test until two days later, fittingly, at Chicago’s Wrigley Field. The trio meshed instantly, combining to hold the Cubs scoreless over 2 ⅔ innings in a 4-2 win.
The impressive debut also unveiled how Dusty Baker would deploy his acquisitions when all were available: Kintzler in the seventh inning, Madson in the ninth and Doolittle to close. Three were dominant when used in their roles. In nine games in which Kintzler entered in the seventh, Madson pitched the eighth and Doolittle closed, they’ve combined to allow two runs on 14 hits and fours walks over 26 ⅔ innings. Washington is 9-0 in those games.
Sean Doolittle: “Usually when a guy gets traded in the middle of the season, these expectations come along with him. And for better or for worse, there’s even more pressure placed on him to be somewhat of a savior or to really be that missing puzzle piece for that team. And when you get to have that other guy come over and then Kintzler came over, it was kind of like the three of us were able to shoulder that so it didn’t fall squarely on one guy’s shoulders.”
Matt Wieters: “When all of them got traded here, I had our advanced guys, they do a great job of kind of giving me their pitch breakdown and their counts and their right-handed and left-handed hitters. So I kind of have an idea of their usage. And then I just kind of put their verbiage to that so when they tell me what to do, just try to match up what I saw on the numbers side of it.”
Dusty Baker: “I remember when I first started managing, the Braves traded for Fred McGriff. You get an impact dude or you figure you get three guys in the bullpen, which is like a 30 percent turnover rate, damn near, in our bullpen. That’s a pretty high turnover of quality.”
Ryan Zimmerman: “I think definitely any time they go out and do something to basically bring in players of that caliber that weren’t on the team to begin with definitely gives you a boost. You try to win every night but it you makes you think really like, ‘Hey, they’re going for it.’ And I don’t know if you can say that in years past. We’ve made some deals and we’ve done some stuff. But I wouldn’t say anything like this year, going and getting Doolittle and Madson and then a guy like Kintzler, that’s three pretty good guys that if they each individually would’ve gone to different teams, I think they would’ve been good moves for all three of the teams.”
Nationals reliever Matt Albers: “I knew my role was going to change. But that didn’t change what I had to do. My job, whenever I pitch, is to get outs.”
Matt Wieters: “With the three we got, they’ve been in high-leverage situations right from the get-go … and the good thing is I’ve known and watched and played against these guys so they’re very comfortable doing what they do and it works.”
Jayson Werth: “I really wasn’t around the team then. I was down in Florida. My morale was with the guys down on rehab in Florida. Makes it tough.”
There have been potholes. Madson spent more than two weeks on the disabled list in August with an unusual index finger injury. Kintzler occasionally stumbled when he was summoned to pitch after the seventh — particularly when tasked with closing. And Doolittle, after converting 21 consecutive save chances to begin his Nationals career, allowed two runs to the Pirates in the ninth inning last Thursday to tie the game. The Nationals went on to win in the bottom of the ninth.
But there is no doubt: the Nationals bullpen is no longer the wart on an otherwise championship-caliber club. It’s a strength, one of several on the deepest team in club history, and perhaps the best bullpen the Nationals have ever taken to the playoffs. It could be the difference in their quest to finally advance past the first round and deep into October.
Ryan Zimmerman: “We’ve always been one of those teams that’s close. But you see what happens around the league — teams, I’m sure you can point in any given direction. All the teams that go out and get players, big-time players. It was good. I think everybody in here feels confident and likes where we’re at.”
Sean Doolittle: “It’s business as usual for us. We weren’t here for [the beginning] part of it. All we know is the success that we’ve had over here and that gives us a lot of confidence going forward. There’s enough pressure, there’s enough emotion in these playoff games and for us to be trying to still justify those trades or exorcise demons, stuff like that. That’s too many things to think about. I think we feel as a bullpen that we really came together at the right time during the season and we had our best months as a bullpen in second half. So, we’re feeling good about it.”
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