Washington Nationals Manager Dave Martinez sat with team personnel Saturday night and discussed the two options for reliever Trevor Rosenthal: release him or stick with him. The maddening part was that they were the same options the Nationals had in late April, at which point Rosenthal had faced 28 batters and walked as many as he’d gotten out (nine).
Martinez hadn’t pulled Rosenthal after his second walk Saturday night because he needed to know what he had. In his toughest situation of the year Friday, Rosenthal showed significant progress by protecting a one-run lead and getting the last out of the eighth inning. On Saturday, with the Nationals holding a four-run lead in the seventh, a taxed bullpen offering no significantly better options and Rosenthal having walked the first two Atlanta Braves he faced, Martinez had a question he could only answer one way.
“If we’re going to do this [with Rosenthal], we need to see where we’re at,” Martinez said. “We have eight guys down there [in the bullpen], and they got to pitch.”
The manager could only watch as Rosenthal threw four pitches so far from the zone that they might not have been strikes to an NBA player. The Braves converted Rosenthal’s walks into a four-run rally, and the Nationals ultimately suffered a 13-9 loss.
Early Sunday morning, before another loss to the Braves, the team called Rosenthal and released him. Martinez said he handled it “very professional.” Reporters requested to speak with Mike Rizzo following the announcement of the decision, but the general manager declined through a team spokesman.
Left to explain the move, Martinez said: “He put the work in, we put the work in, we tried to get him right, and just things didn’t work out. It was time for us to move on.”
The decision concluded a disaster that ended with the Nationals on the hook for $7 million in salary and Rosenthal with a 22.74 ERA. At 10:30 a.m. on Sunday, the 29-year-old left Nationals Park in his dark green truck. A few teammates caught him on the way out. When they wished him well, Rosenthal smiled as he always has.
Inside, Martinez seemed troubled about what would happen to Rosenthal, whose diligence he had appreciated while they tried to work him back.
“I told him, I said: ‘Hey, hopefully you get a chance to pitch again. Hopefully you get a chance to pitch in the big leagues,’ ” Martinez said. “I mean, he’s got great stuff. He just couldn’t find the strike zone.”
After what became his last appearance in a Nationals uniform, Rosenthal maintained that he didn’t feel any different than he had during his successful Friday outing. He repeated his belief that he can fix his struggles with “a small mechanical tweak” to “sync up his timing” that should be “fairly easy” and quick. The same words arising from the same situations led Martinez to wonder whether he was back to square one with Rosenthal.
“Yesterday, he seemed a little bit poised,” Martinez said about Friday’s outing. “But today, he seemed antsy out there.”
Before Saturday’s game, Martinez still saw Rosenthal as an important puzzle piece to his bullpen. His season’s disastrous start and a 43-day sojourn to the injured list and Class AA Harrisburg to figure things out did not change the fact that the optimal version of this bullpen still featured Rosenthal as the setup man, the Nationals believed.
Martinez wanted the reliever to work back into his originally envisioned role, both because it would cement the eighth inning and because it would offer him increased flexibility. For the bridge to closer Sean Doolittle, the manager would have three effective arms he trusts in high-leverage situations: newcomer Tanner Rainey, late-inning regular Wander Suero and Rosenthal. If all three were available, Martinez could more liberally deploy them to put out fires earlier in the game. Second, if one of them wasn’t available because of use, such as Suero on Saturday night, he still would have two options conditioned for pressurized opportunities to navigate the seventh and eighth.
And if Rosenthal had gotten his issues straightened out, he would have been a viable substitute for Doolittle in the ninth if the closer was unavailable. Martinez considered no one a better closing alternative than Rosenthal, when he’s at his best. Martinez and Rosenthal’s teammates were fond of pointing out that he is, after all, only four years removed from an all-star-worthy, 48-save campaign in 2015.
Yet Saturday night, after the fleeting hope of Friday had been dashed, Rosenthal seemed further away from that role than he had ever been. While Martinez seemed worn down at the prospect of considering this situation again, Rosenthal appeared as he always has: calm, steady, confident.
The reliever understood his struggles with command led to his team’s loss, and, he said, it “stinks.” But he realized there was nothing he could do about that anymore.
“I’m not trying to just dwell on [Saturday’s appearance],” he said. “[I need to] come back tomorrow, realize there’s an adjustment I can make, and I think it’ll make a big difference to get me back to where I want to be.”
The Nationals had heard it all before. The question was whether they were willing to try it again. The answer came Sunday morning.
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