“The thought process was we felt that both the rotation and the bullpen, we thought that we had some flaws in there,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said after he and Martinez met with Lilliquist on Thursday night. “We thought that there was preparation issues there, and we thought that we wanted to get a new message and a new voice.”
That new voice will be Paul Menhart, who has worked in Washington’s system for 14 years and served as the minor league pitching coordinator for the past five. He has never been on the major league staff, though he was the pitching coach for the Class AA Harrisburg Senators in 2012 and 2013. In his many roles, Menhart has had a hand in developing Stephen Strasburg, Erick Fedde and Joe Ross, among other homegrown arms.
Now he has a chance to help a suspect bullpen and one of baseball’s deeper rotations. By removing Lilliquist just 30 games into this season, the Nationals indicated that something had to change amid a 13-17 start. It is often managers or coaches who are the first to go when trouble hits, and Washington’s bullpen entered Thursday with the league’s second-worst ERA at 6.02. That has been the biggest reason for unsatisfactory results, and the Nationals’ rotation has also been inconsistent despite being stocked with Max Scherzer, Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Anibal Sanchez and Jeremy Hellickson.
That all connects to Lilliquist. Rizzo built this team around the mound, spending $96 million on the rotation this season and adding three back-end relievers in Trevor Rosenthal, Tony Sipp and Kyle Barraclough. But that has blown up in the Nationals’ face , especially when the bullpen door has swung open, and it has led to Lilliquist shouldering the blame. Rizzo said this decision was not made in days or even weeks but rather a product of Lilliquist’s full body of work since he started with the Nationals.
“Took it like a true champion,” Rizzo said of Lilliquist’s reaction. “Did not agree with the assessment and the decision, and I respect that. But took it like a professional.”
Lilliquist, 53, was in his normal spot during Thursday’s game, perched on the dugout steps and leaning against a railing. He has been a pitching coach since 2011, when he first signed on with the Cardinals under manager Tony La Russa. He spent the next seven years in St. Louis until he was let go following the 2017 season. That’s when Washington scooped him up to work with Martinez in his first shot as a manager.
Since, Lilliquist’s hands-off approach was welcomed by many members of a veteran staff. He is calm and quiet, as steady as anyone in the clubhouse, and always saw himself as a resource more than anything else.
“I’m a firm believer that every single guy is their own pitching coach,” said Stephen Strasburg, who gave up one run in 6.2 innings of Thursday’s win. “We’re the only guys who has seen ourselves throw every pitch that we’ve ever thrown. It sucks because I think as you get older and stuff you have to rely on what you know.
“And Lilly was always there to share his opinion and two cents, and I really enjoyed working with him.”
That is exactly how Lilliquist described himself this spring, as a coach who lays back and lets pitchers come to him when needing guidance. Rizzo described Menhart’s approach, the one they are hoping jump-starts the staff, as “hands-on” and “analytical.”
“I’m not the kind of coach who is all over guys or in their face about small things,” Lilliquist said in March. “I want to be a sounding board, especially for the more established pitchers, someone they can bounce ideas off or come to if they need help. That works with this group. And it’s just who I am.”
But if this group didn’t work — starters, relievers, whoever — Lilliquist was on the hook for it. The Nationals rotation was racked by injuries in 2018 and finished with the 13th-best ERA in baseball. It has regressed through a month of this season, ranking 20th in staff ERA, and the bullpen remains the glaring issue.
Rosenthal was signed to be the setup man and is currently on a rehab assignment at the team’s spring training facility in West Palm Beach, Fla. His complete lack of control, from his first appearance on, forced the Nationals to shuffle bullpen roles and give Rosenthal time away from the team.
So, on the second day of May, a staff tweak was needed before the season progressed any further. That led the Nationals to Lilliquist, even if he doesn’t throw the ball, and even if he can only do so much once a pitcher enters. The results haven’t been good enough, and now the pitching coach is out of a job.
“At this point, we wanted a new voice and a new face, somebody to relay the message in a different way,” Martinez said. “As you guys know, Derek’s a good friend of mine. So this is tough.”