Elías later asserted “there’s nothing wrong, that’s baseball.” He explained Tuesday’s outing nose-dived more because of location than stuff, and said that will improve with more innings as he works his way back from the injured list; he returned to the team Friday after spending a month there with a right hamstring strain.
“Those pitches I left over the plate that got hit out?” Elías said in Spanish through a team translator. “If I locate them where I want to locate them, they don't hit that. That's the biggest thing.”
The Nationals are running out of time. Their lack of a reliable lefty-on-lefty matchup option is a concerning development and, coupled with an impending four-game series against the NL East-leading Atlanta Braves — the team with one of the game’s best left-handed hitters in Freddie Freeman — it has prompted a bigger question. Who can the Nationals trust to get left-handed hitters out?
Martinez remains convinced it must be Elías. He believes Elías’s struggles against left-handed hitters stems from too much fastball, not enough breaking ball. He wants his reliever to use the “really good” change-up more. Yet Elías’s Tuesday night struggles were not atypical.
Left-handed hitters have a .981 on-base-plus-slugging percentage against Elías this season, the seventh-worst rate of the 120 lefties who have pitched 10 or more innings. But this year is out-of-character for Elías, who has allowed a .717 OPS to left-handed hitters in his career. The question of whether he’ll figure out what’s going wrong is crucial with 23 games left.
Elías agrees with Martinez that he needs to adapt. He thinks this down year is because hitters understand the scouting report on him now — “very aggressive in the strike zone” — and they’ve recalibrated. But he believes the necessary tweaks amount to simply throwing more sliders and pounding the zone inside to left-handed hitters. He stressed again that he needs more game situations to actualize the adjustment.
“What I feel like I need to do is keep pitching,” Elías said. “That’s basically it.”
The manager understands this, and he saw Tuesday’s outing as a hiccup.
“I’m not down on him at all,” Martinez said. “He came off the IL, and we got to get him out there.” He hesitated. “And he’s got to get lefties out.”
The Nationals need Elías because they have few other options. Two lefties they carried earlier in the season, Tony Sipp and Matt Grace, have been designated for assignment There are no real solutions in the minors and meaningful free agent signings in September are rare. Plus, the team must weigh ability against fit because players praise the team’s chemistry almost every time they step in the clubhouse.
The Nationals do, however, have one other left-hander in the bullpen. He has, even in a down year, posted good numbers against left-handed batters. But Sean Doolittle is supposed to be the closer. Right?
Martinez asserted that was still Doolittle’s role until he returned last week from his rehab assignment. Then the two met and Doolittle said his stuff wasn’t there. His fastball dipped from about 94 mph in the majors to barely touching 90 for Class A Potomac, so they decided he shouldn’t close. They concluded, for the time being, to use Doolittle in low-leverage situations while he rebuilds his arm. Therein lies the opportunity to experiment with him as the lefty specialist.
Doolittle is already on board. He said in April “you can’t have an ego in the bullpen” and has demonstrated his commitment to actualizing the statement ever since. He said, when the Nationals activated him, he would do whatever it took in his return. On Wednesday, after a scoreless ninth inning against the Mets, he and Martinez said was as good as he has in a while. He touched 94 mph again and his spin rate increased.
“The ball was really coming out,” Martinez said.
But Doolittle is not sure what’s next. He doubled down on his commitment to do whatever the team needed.
“Hopefully I’ll be in the mix in some capacity in Atlanta,” he said, “especially with the lefties they have in their lineup.”
This option of Doolittle as the lefty specialist is presumptive. It doesn’t account for how Martinez might navigate the decision with his tightknit clubhouse. It doesn’t account for who would become the closer and if that pitcher has the mentality for it, though Daniel Hudson seems like a candidate. It doesn’t account for how the Nationals’ relievers themselves might adjust, or what they then might do with Elías.
It does account for who can get left-handed hitters out, though, and that’s what matters.
The Nationals will still likely go to Elías the next time they need a lefty specialist, to give him the chance to work through this. But, as the season gets shorter and the moments bigger, each decision becomes more important. There are plenty of fearsome left-handed hitters on deck.