Mike Rizzo couldn’t find a seat for the Washington Nationals’ series finale at Wrigley Field last week. ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” crews filled the auxiliary boxes usually used by the visiting general manager, and Rizzo can hardly walk a few yards in that stadium without an old Chicago friend or longtime worker calling “Riz!” Sitting in the stands wouldn’t have afforded much of a chance to concentrate.
So Rizzo headed downstairs to the visiting manager’s office — a tiny, windowless room with walls of bland, beige brick and little space to breathe. If that room wasn’t built to demoralize opponents, it certainly serves that purpose.
He sat there alone, watching on television as Max Scherzer clung to a one-run lead through seven gutsy innings. He watched as Koda Glover hung on through an adventurous eighth. He watched Ryan Zimmerman find redemption against Brandon Kintzler when he drove home insurance runs in the ninth. Then he watched Ryan Madson surrender a walk-off grand slam as the Cubs prevailed, 4-3.
Rizzo walked out to see the look on the face of the only player already in the clubhouse: Scherzer, who takes losing harder than anyone on the roster. Rizzo felt for him, for all of them. The bullpen wasn’t supposed to do this — not this year. And yet, once again, it fell apart.
Over the past two weeks, arguably the most pivotal two weeks of the season, the bullpen has repeatedly let this team down. Whether in that Sunday night shocker or in Saturday’s 10-inning debacle, the Nationals have watched chance after chance to gain ground slip away.
As the rest of the Nationals’ roster has finally coalesced as intended, that bullpen has tripped them.
The bullpen the Nationals had at the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline included Kelvin Herrera and Madson, as well as optimism that closer Sean Doolittle would be back soon from his foot injury. Kintzler and Shawn Kelley were providing key innings. Justin Miller continued to prove himself reliable. Matt Grace could add length. Sammy Solis was back.
The bullpen the Nationals have now includes only two of those players: Grace and Miller. The transformation has been swift, unintentional and ultimately destructive. The Nationals have the eighth-highest bullpen ERA (5.06) in baseball since the trade deadline. Over that stretch, they have lost a pair of games they were leading in the seventh or later, and two more in which the teams were tied in the ninth. They planned to have better.
Late on the night before the trade deadline, the Nationals were still considering a variety of possibilities. In one of the most involved pre-deadline preparation efforts they have experienced under Rizzo, according to people familiar with it, the Nationals’ front office constructed a handful of plans — including one in which the team sold off key pieces, some of which were veteran relievers. Bryce Harper, of course, also was one of the names that would have departed in a total sell-off.
Rizzo believed the Nationals should stand pat. As he said in a midmorning text to The Washington Post the next day that solidified his stance: “Bryce isn’t going anywhere. I believe in this team.” He made his recommendation to the team’s owners, but they still wanted options, to know what a sell-off might yield.
So the front office provided them. When names started being exchanged, ownership agreed to stay the course. At some point midmorning on deadline day, the Nationals’ public relations staff understood the team would not be making any more deals. Then the Nationals did.
That deal sent Kintzler to the Cubs for a minor league reliever who would not help the Nationals this year, or perhaps even at all. The move took Kintzler by surprise. He was not one of the team’s veteran relievers entering free agency, so he was never one of the Nationals’ trade priorities. But Kintzler was due to make $6 million or so between Aug. 1 and the end of next season. The Cubs called. Rizzo pulled the trigger.
“The thought process that went into that was: We’ve got a really strong back end of the bullpen, with Doolittle, Madson, Herrera. We felt that [Wander] Suero has earned the opportunity to pitch in the big leagues,” Rizzo said that day. “With Glover coming back, we’ve got great depth now with our bullpen arms. It gives us financial flexibility — this year and next year going forward.”
Soon a different narrative emerged, one in which Kintzler’s willingness to speak his mind became an inspiration for the deal. A day earlier, Yahoo Sports published a story in which an anonymous source called the Nationals’ clubhouse “a mess.” Kintzler was not the source, he and the writer, Jeff Passan, insisted later.
But in the aftermath of that story, according to people with direct knowledge of the situation, Rizzo delivered a message to his clubhouse that warned against spreading misinformation.
Kintzler heard about that message and went to Rizzo before he left Nationals Park, according to people familiar with their exchange. He promised Rizzo he wasn’t Passan’s source. He had already admitted to being one of the sources for a July 19 story in The Post outlining the relievers’ concerns about Manager Dave Martinez’s handling of the bullpen. He went to Rizzo, in person, to be forthright about that. So when he heard that Rizzo had told his teammates to pipe down, Kintzler worried a misconception had ended his Nationals tenure. He swore to Rizzo, on his children, that he hadn’t been the source.
“I didn’t like how I was portrayed, that’s for sure. Especially since I was already out the door and didn’t have a chance to defend myself. I don’t know where all that stuff came from. It was kind of shocking, really,” Kintzler said at Wrigley Field last week.
“It’s pretty hurtful because I thought I put a lot into that team and into that clubhouse,” he added. “To be portrayed by someone who’s not even in that clubhouse, it’s pretty hurtful, but it’s all in the past.”
Repeatedly asked about this later, Rizzo said he didn’t trade Kintzler because he spoke up — or because he thought he spoke up. He insisted the deal was more about payroll, and he continues to do so. Asked about it in Chicago last week, before the Sunday night meltdown, Rizzo said that if he had known Herrera and Madson would get hurt, he would not have traded Kintzler, who has allowed three runs in six innings with the Cubs.
The Nationals still would have sent out Kelley, however, for what the veteran did later July 31.
Kelley, like Kintzler, would have provided a more experienced late-inning option during the past few weeks. Experience does not always equate to success, but stability often helps. But he, like Kintzler, departed abruptly the day after the trade deadline after throwing his glove during an on-field tantrum in what had been a 25-1 game when he inherited it.
At the time of Kelley’s outburst, the decision to stand pat at the deadline felt galvanizing. The team, buoyed by togetherness (or by the New York Mets’ poor pitching staff) and one last chance to go on a streak, exploded for 25 runs in an emphatic start to the stretch run.
Then, in the ninth inning of that 25-1 game, Kelley grew frustrated with the umpires and surrendered a home run to make the score 25-4. As the ball flew out to left, Kelley slammed his glove to the ground and glared toward the Nationals’ dugout, a move open to interpretation — but impossible to ignore.
Kelley explained later that he was just frustrated with himself, and that the look into the dugout was more of a cry for help with the umpires. Rizzo said later that he interpreted the glare as showing up Martinez, of staring at the manager because he hadn’t come out to argue for his pitcher. Kelley’s teammates felt the same.
Rizzo headed down to the clubhouse and confronted Kelley, according to people familiar with the situation. The argument became heated, including raised voices, and eventually it almost became physical, according to people familiar with the exchange. Adam Eaton got between the pair and separated them before things could advance further, but Rizzo’s frustration was not isolated.
Scherzer and Madson also confronted Kelley that night to express their disapproval of his outburst. Not long after, Rizzo told Kelley he would be designating him for assignment, then issued his “if you’re not in, you’re in the way” proclamation to reporters the next day. The Nationals ultimately traded Kelley to Oakland, where he had yet to allow a run in four appearances entering Monday and remains disappointed with the way his 2 1/2- year Nationals tenure ended.
“I hate to be seen as a guy that was showing up his manager or selfish, because I’ve played 10 years and I’ve never been that guy. So I don’t think I’d start now,” Kelley said when reached by phone after the trade. “It’s an unfortunate set of circumstances, but it is what it is, so I’ll move on and make the best of it.”
Washington replaced Kelley and Kintzler with Suero and Jimmy Cordero, adding two young arms to a bullpen that still had Herrera and Madson ready for the eighth and ninth, and reason to believe Doolittle would be back soon.
At times, betting on Herrera’s durability felt risky. He is a fidgety pitcher who never looked quite right after being traded to Washington in June, shaking his arm here and there — the kind of thing that makes observers wonder whether his forearm or elbow is not feeling right. But neither of those was the issue Aug. 7, the night he allowed the Atlanta Braves to take the lead and could not finish the ninth in a 3-1 loss. His shoulder was inflamed, a problem he said he had never experienced and thus couldn’t have seen coming.
At the time, even that injury didn’t feel damning. Doolittle was supposed to be back soon, and Madson, though he has always been more comfortable in a setup role, was looking like his old self. Then came that night in Chicago, the walk-off grand slam and the almost more stunning explanation: His back was sore, and he was experiencing shooting pain down his leg.
He hadn’t told anyone — which makes sense, given how desperately Washington needed relief help. Two days later, Madson was on the disabled list, and he is now in Phoenix working with his personal trainer, using electric stimulation.
All of this would have been less problematic if Doolittle’s initial injury was as minor as it seemed. But the stress reaction in his left foot won’t dissipate, and try as he might to work around it, he can’t find a comfortable method. As of last week in St. Louis, he was throwing off the mound, trying to change his mechanics so his foot would experience less torque. But the ball wasn’t coming out right. His mechanics weren’t clicking. He ditched the plan.
This, of course, is the best long-term move for the Nationals, who can pick up an option on Doolittle’s contract for next year, and again for the next, thereby saving themselves a nightmare stretch like this one by locking in an established closer for the long term. But if Doolittle were to tinker with his mechanics, disrupt the kinetic chain and somehow injure his arm . . . well, the Nationals would lose the battle and the war.
Herrera could be back as early as Tuesday, Martinez said. His return will help. Glover can set up. Miller can pitch the seventh. But the Nationals’ bullpen, that annual source of angst, was never supposed to need Glover or Miller in key spots down the stretch.
This Nationals bullpen was supposed to be the one that bucked the trend, the stable source of strength. It was so strong, in fact, that Rizzo and the front office believed they could afford to purge a few pieces. But dramatically and destructively, it fell apart again — just at the moment the Nationals, desperate to save their season, needed everything to come together.