ATLANTA — The idea couldn’t have gained much traction Wednesday night, once starter Aníbal Sánchez was picking through the Atlanta Braves as if he were facing a Little League team.
“Obviously we’ve talked about that,” Martinez said, and Rizzo mentioned that it is ultimately the manager’s decision. “About getting a guy to maybe pitch two innings and then start our starter.”
It’s only obvious because, to this point of the season, little has worked with the Nationals’ back-of-the-rotation starters and relievers not named Sean Doolittle. The strategy of using an opener, regularly employed last season by the Athletics and Rays, is to begin games with a reliever and plug in a traditional starter after one, two or even three innings if the first pitcher is going well. There are a handful of reasons to do this. It allows a manager to match up with the top of the opposing lineup right away. It makes a starter’s third time through a lineup, in which the statistics are stacked against them, only a second trip through. And, conceivably, it could help shorten the bridge between a starter and a team’s closer in the ninth.
But there are also a lot of reasons it would be hard for these Nationals to execute. The Rays, Athletics and Brewers are the three teams that leaned on using an opener for parts of last season. What do they all have in common? Very good relievers. What does Washington currently have? A historically bad bullpen with a major league-worst 7.14 ERA (the next highest is 5.94).
So if the Nationals were to go with an opener — which one person with knowledge of their thinking characterized as “unlikely” Wednesday — it would seem only to shift their ongoing problems to another part of the game. Maybe it could help Sánchez, Erick Fedde or Jeremy Hellickson when healthy, to get favorable matchups and push deeper into games. Or maybe the Nationals need to solidify a few reliable middle relievers before they get creative.
“Our starters go deep in games and they are doing really well, so it’s hard to take him out of what they’re used to doing and tell them that they are going to pitch in the third inning or second inning,” Martinez said. “So for right now, I like where our starters are at. We just got to continue to focus and figure out who is going to pitch the seventh, who is going to pitch the eighth, and we just got to get the ball to Doolittle.”
It is easier for Rizzo to discuss the possibility of an opener than it is for Martinez to delve too far into it. The concept, however logical in some cases, is viewed as a lack of confidence in certain starting pitchers. And even if there is good reason for that — the Nationals were 6-11 in Sánchez and Hellickson starts before Wednesday’s 14-4 win — Martinez will publicly back them 10 times out of 10.
Rizzo, on the other hand, can speak about strategy in a slightly different way. But even considering that and what he told hosts on 106.7 the Fan on Wednesday, it still felt like him saying the Nationals are exploring any way to succeed. Rizzo spends the offseason noting that the front office kicks the tires on every free agent. Discussing an opener, when prompted, felt similar to that. Washington would not use an opener with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg or Patrick Corbin on the mound. Rizzo said he likes what he has seen from Fedde, who’s filling in for Hellickson while he works back from a right shoulder strain. He made it seem possible that Sánchez could have an opener begin one of his starts because he entered Wednesday with an 0-6 record and 5.10. Then the 35-year-old went out and threw six scoreless on 80 pitches in his return from the injured list.
And, since the Nationals wouldn’t use their high-leverage relievers in that role, the options appear to be left-hander Matt Grace (7.54 ERA) or right-handed journeyman Javy Guerra (7.71). Grace has become Martinez’s most-trusted lefty specialist in recent games. Guerra has hardly pitched since Washington claimed him on outright waivers in mid-May. The other guys in the bullpen are Doolittle, Kyle Barraclough (5.48), Wander Suero (6.85), Tanner Rainey (3.60) and Tony Sipp (6.30), and they either have been stayed away from or called upon in big spots.
The personnel just isn’t there.
“We brainstorm every day,” Martinez said of how many wrinkles the Nationals have considered during a 24-32 start. “I wake up with brain storms.”
It is worth noting that Washington’s top three starters could hypothetically enable the use of an opener. On the radio Wednesday, Rizzo laid out these potential issues with the approach: It asks a lot of the rest of the rotation. Three to four relievers could be used, at a minimum, depending on what the starter gives. And — and this is reading a bit between the lines — it could overtax a bullpen that is having trouble staying fresh without any added responsibilities.
But at the very least, the rest of the rotation has proved to be more than capable of going deep into games and easing the relievers’ workloads. Strasburg has gone six or more in all but one outing this year. Scherzer regularly leads the majors in innings pitched. Corbin has thrown six or more in nine of his 11 starts and is coming off a complete-game shutout. That is why the Nationals’ bullpen has thrown the fewest innings in baseball.
So there is evidence that the Nationals could really consider an opener if Sánchez struggles again or Fedde comes down to earth or they reinsert Hellickson into the rotation and that doesn’t go well. There are just even more reasons to believe that, given this roster, only more problems would come of it.
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