The members of the Washington Nationals’ bullpen prayed for rain Wednesday. They consulted the weather maps on their smartphones and speculated among each other during the afternoon. They were not too afraid of playing the New York Yankees, twice, by completing Tuesday’s suspended game (tied after 5½ innings), then sending Max Scherzer against CC Sabathia in another game about a half-hour later.
They were more worried about whether their arms would still be attached to their bodies if they had to keep pitching as much as they have in the Nationals’ first 42 games. What if both Yankees games had to be played, perhaps with extra innings?
“No way we’re going to be playing the second game. I’ve been studying [the weather] all day,” said reliever Brandon Kintzler, who has pitched in 21 of the Nats’ past 36 games and, with his sinker flat instead of falling Sunday, gave up three runs and blew a save in Arizona as the Nats played their 18th game in 18 days.
What if both games were postponed? What if, with another day off scheduled for Thursday, the entire Nats bullpen, except Wander Suero, who pitched an inning Tuesday, were to get an unheard of four straight days without work, the equivalent of an all-star break in mid-May?
“Take ’em all,” Kintzler said, as a bullpen mate chuckled. “We need ’em.”
“Our best guys have had to keep pushing through,” said reliever Shawn Kelley, now back from the disabled list and one of several in the bullpen who hasn’t contributed as much as he expected so far. “What matters now is how many guys are standing at the end of the season. The rest of us, like me, need to give them more help.”
Right now, the quartet at the back of the bullpen — Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson, Kintzler and Sammy Solis — are on pace for astronomical numbers of games: 69, 85, 81 and 89, respectively. Last year, Matt Albers, Oliver Perez, Enny Romero and Matt Grace helped carry the load, Albers brilliantly, others adequately. Now they’re all gone except Grace, who is on the DL.
Such a workload, or anything close to it, is not sustainable. Unless the situation improves, with better performance by current middle relievers, or different usage patterns by rookie Manager Dave Martinez, or fresh arms to the rescue from Class AAA or via trade, multiple injuries are probably just a matter of time. And all four of those valuable gentlemen have had injury problems in their pasts.
On Wednesday, the Nats got their “wish” and, perhaps, just in time. Both games with the Yankees were postponed — a Nationals decision — despite only a slight drizzle falling from the time the postponement was announced around 4 p.m. until well past 6 p.m. The suspended game was set to restart at 5:05. Heh, heh.
Instead of figuring out which of countless permutations he might use to maneuver through those games, Martinez simply got to beat rush-hour traffic out of Nationals Park and not have to fret about late-inning pitching changes he might have had to make as midnight approached.
Would days off, the more the merrier, help his hard-worked bullpen?
“Oh, absolutely,” said Martinez, before the postponements.
What was scheduled for Wednesday will now take place June 18, when the Nats assume Ryan Zimmerman, probably Daniel Murphy and perhaps others, such as Matt Wieters and Grace, will be active again. Don’t get your rosin bag in a twist; home teams have been postponing games as they see fit for generations. The umps take control as soon as the first pitch is thrown. Besides, slick fields have led to Nationals injuries in recent years, and June 18 may be gorgeous.
And, by then, the Nats’ bullpen may not be a train wreck waiting to happen.
Thanks to a spectacular 13-2 stretch, including six wins in which they scored three or fewer runs, the Nats have transformed their spring from harrowing to almost relaxing at 24-18. But Doolittle, Madson, Kintzler and Solis made 37 appearances in that skein. If you tried to keep up that pace for a season, which no team would, the quartet would average almost 100 games apiece.
As the result of scratch-and-claw offense with makeshift lineups, plus some speed-and-bunt little ball by Martinez, and a dazzling starting rotation that, excluding long-gone A.J. Cole, has an ERA of 2.62, the Nats began the day only 1½ games behind the Atlanta Braves in the NL East and are back to a 92½ -win pace.
Just as indicative of their rebound, the Nats have now outscored their opponents by 35 runs, on pace for plus-135 for the season — very similar to their margins in 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2017, when they won the division with ease.
And they have done it with a constantly changing roster that often includes nine or 10 players who have been at Class AAA Syracuse this year or weren’t on the Opening Day roster.
Look at the Nationals season from 30,000 feet, and you see two things. First, Martinez probably had to ride his bullpen hard for the first quarter of the season because, in his first year, he didn’t want to have to bring his team from far behind in a division race against the improved Braves, Philadelphia Phillies and maybe New York Mets.
Second, Martinez got away with that gamble, and it paid off. Now he better cut it out. The big deficit worry is gone, so concern yourself with protecting the existing bullpen and developing a couple of more trusted arms so he can improve it. As one Nationals player said, “The best bullpens are now five or six deep, not three or four.”
If you analyze the Nats’ division candidly, the big scare is probably already over.
The Nats should focus, instead, on how vulnerable the whole NL is with the Dodgers off to their worst start since moving to Los Angeles in 1958. Nobody looks better than the Nats, assuming they eventually get close to decent health. For the Nats, and Chicago Cubs, the mantra for a few months should be: no self-inflicted wounds.
For four straight days, the Nats’ bullpen will get an almost total vacation without so much as a phone call to warm up. Instead of two days of Yankees slugging, the bullpen gets to rest and, hopefully, reset its expectations with bigger roles for fellows such as Trevor Gott, Suero, Carlos Torres and Kelley, or whomever may join them, even if it means a couple of extra Nats losses as Martinez sorts out his best available “B bullpen” to preserve the “A’s.”
One reliever takes out his phone. “Look what [reliever] Justin Miller is doing at Syracuse,” he says. “0.00 ERA in 10 innings with two hits and 17 strikeouts.”
When big leaguers start scouting the guys at AAA, you know they’re bushed.
Time to help them out.