There was a time this season when Matt Grace was warming up every day, and pitching almost as often, and that didn’t work.
Grace’s ERA spiked all the way up to 8.55 after he allowed four runs in one inning against the Chicago Cubs on May 17. His sinker was getting crushed. His name pinged around social media each time he entered, 22 times by the the middle of last month, and the messages were rarely kind. He was synonymous with the Nationals’ ongoing bullpen epidemic. He couldn’t get outs without kindling a fire.
So Manager Dave Martinez simplified his role — or completely flipped it on its head — shifting Grace from a multi-inning reliever to a matchup specialist. And it worked.
“Subconsciously, having a very direct task, one batter or two batters, really helped me focus,” Grace said. “I didn’t know it, but I guess I needed it.”
The change led Grace to make nine straight appearances without allowing a run, a streak that stretched from May 19 to June 6. That accounted for six total innings, with six of the outings lasting less than a full frame, and he built confidence with matchup wins against lefties like Anthony Rizzo, Robinson Cano an Neil Walker. Martinez wanted to give one specific — put everything into this one batter — so he’d stop worrying about conserving energy and pitching so often. It came just in time for Grace’s role to expand back what it was, or at least something closer to it, now that the bullpen has seven arms and he’ll be needed an inning or more at a time.
And it also gives Martinez a possible template to use when relievers aren’t going well.
“I’ve tried that throughout the whole year with some guys and it has worked,” Martinez said. “Matty likes pitching. He’ll take the ball every single day, doesn’t matter what situation, and I’ve done that with him on occasion where he’s pitched a lot. I thought this time just to reel him in and get him back on track.”
When Washington was carrying eight relievers, before slimming down to seven last weekend, Grace could function as a lefty specialist. Martinez had Javy Guerra and Kyle McGowin to provide length. Tony Sipp, signed in mid-March to be a matchup lefty, has been up-and-down all season. So Grace fit into the role and excelled in a handful of big spots.
In his worst stretch of the season, five appearances from May 5 to May 17, his pitch counts were some of his highest of the year: 42, 17, 25, 14, 34. He then threw 17 total pitches in his next three appearances, all scoreless, and hasn’t topped 20 since. And even those came in most recent outing, two innings against the Arizona Diamondbacks in post-rain delay mop-up duty. That’s the kind of assignment he would have gotten in April or May. He just seems better equipped to handle it since Martinez hit reset.
“I wouldn’t say my arm needed a break, because I pride myself in going out there all the time and doing whatever is needed,” Grace said. “Even when Davey changed that up on me, I still prepared as if I was going to pitch every day. That’s just who I am and I understand my place in the bullpen."
This doesn’t mean Grace won’t find himself in any high-leverage matchup situations moving forward. He was convincing when given the chance, even if it was temporary, and Sipp’s workload could be scaled back at any time. But when Martinez needed a lefty on Wednesday, just in case pinch-hitter Jay Bruce came to the plate in a tight game, it was Sipp who warmed in the bullpen. That was a sign that Grace is again a multi-inning option, though Martinez hopes to not tax his arm like he did to begin the year.
Grace showed that he can complete downsized tasks, even with some pressure added, and he has a 1.13 ERA in the eight innings since the Cubs lit him up. The Nationals’ bullpen has, improbably, become one of baseball’s better bullpens in this stretch. It could be a lesson for everyone.
Read more on the Nationals: