Once this bullpen came together, in no more than 30 minutes, the question became how Martinez would utilize it. When asked about that, over and over this past weekend, Martinez maintained that a deeper bullpen would lessen workloads from the top down. He didn’t offer much more than that. But across three games at the Arizona Diamondbacks, a win and two losses, he provided a loose picture of his plan.
“We had four or five arms that we could rely on in the bullpen, and we needed that to get deeper,” Rizzo said Saturday. “When you have to use your 'A' bullpen in 'B' bullpen situations, to keep games close, that’s what was making it so difficult for Davey to maneuver those type of decisions.”
Before the Nationals acquired and Hudson, Strickland and Elías, some relievers had more specific roles than others. Doolittle has been the Nationals’ closer from Day 1. Rodney developed into their eighth-inning setup man. Suero had the seventh, and if he were unavailable, Rainey could take on high-leverage situations. Martinez rarely deviated.
But now, with three proven additions in the mix, Suero and Rainey are less defined, while Grace will be a traditional long man. Suero and Rainey could be bumped down to middle relief or called upon in lopsided games or when the “A" bullpen needs rest. Both struggled this weekend, with Rainey failing to complete an inning Saturday and Suero taking the loss Sunday after he gave up two runs that broke a seventh-inning tie.
As for the other four — Doolittle, Hudson, Strickland and Elías — Martinez seems to have a clearer idea of how he’ll plug them in. Elías is on the 10-day injured list after straining a hamstring while running to first base Friday night, and he was replaced on the roster by Javy Guerra, another multi-inning reliever. Yet Elías did face two batters in his Nationals debut after Martinez went to the lefty to match up in the sixth inning.
Martinez showed he will plug in Elías at any spot of a close contest and rely on him to get lefties out. The Nationals had otherwise looked to a combination of Tony Sipp, Grace and even Suero to do that this season. Elías is a sure upgrade.
Strickland seems to be interchangeable with Rodney as the setup man for Doolittle. On Friday, with the bullpen completely rested and the Nationals holding a slim lead, Strickland pitched the seventh, Rodney pitched the eighth, and Doolittle shut the door. On Sunday, with Washington trailing by two runs, Strickland threw a scoreless eighth while the 42-year-old Rodney rested.
When Martinez discusses his reimagined bullpen and how it will help this team, he often points to Rodney and how much the Nationals were asking of him. Rodney pitched in both legs of a doubleheader July 24, then failed to record a save the next day. Martinez said that will not happen again because of — you guessed it — his options. Strickland, with his power fastball and sharp slider, provides a way to divvy up duties and keep both arms fresh.
And then there’s Hudson, maybe the Nationals’ best deadline acquisition and a bit under the radar because of his no-flash approach. He arrived having stranded 21 of the 22 runners he had inherited this season with the Toronto Blue Jays. The Nationals have been looking for a reliever to come in and kill rallies all year. That’s why Martinez complimented Hudson’s ability to do so, even before he joined the team, then twice plugged him into those situations against Arizona. Hudson stranded the bases loaded with a strikeout Saturday. He got two outs to stand a pair of runners Sunday.
Hudson did it with a high-90s fastball, a high-80s slider and a sinker that can induce groundballs when needed. His first two appearances as a National bumped his season total to 26 of 27 inherited runners left on base. So his reputation has checked out.
“I’ve always kind of taken pride in trying to get out of those situations for teammates,” Hudson said. “You know that’s their livelihood out there on the bases, and I’d want them to have the same mind-set when they come in if my guys are on base.”
How Martinez mixes in Rainey and Suero while balancing his improved parts will be important down the stretch. He has a tendency to overtax relievers who are clicking, with Doolittle, Rodney and Suero examples of that this season. Suero and Rainey, when on, can be viable middle relievers who moonlight in big spots. That, in turn, could help avoid going to Doolittle, Rodney and Strickland too often.
Martinez will figure that out in the coming days, and in the coming weeks, while he pieces together a bullpen blueprint for the pennant race. And it won’t have to be set in stone. The thing about options — maybe the best thing — is that they allow for constant change.
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