Left-hander Matt Grace made quite a transformation in his role out of the bullpen in 2017. He faced lefties and righties, came at different points in the game and even started a game at San Diego, providing a versatility on the roster that was close to unmatched.
But that was no big deal to Grace, who didn’t appear in a game until April 26 and bounced around in May before finally staying on the Nationals roster beginning with a June 17 game. Hit total usage was less than seven innings in May and June. But in July (14 1/3 innings) and August (15 1/3 innings) he appeared in 20 games. Due to need and necessity on Aug. 18, he started a game at San Diego and went 4 1/3 innings.
Grace said his most important takeaway from last season was how crucial it is for him to be in good physical shape for a grueling, 162-game campaign.
“I think the biggest thing is that when you go for stretches as a reliever of being used consecutive days, especially my role last year - it was long, it was short - it was kind of all these different roles. I think just bouncing back and making sure your body is in, like, the best shape as possible, and you’re eating well and doing all that,” Grace said.
“You really need to stay on top of that stuff for a longer duration of a season. Because those back-to-back days, throwing multiple innings, and be ready for the next day, kind of adds up a little bit during a long stretch of a season like that. That was one of the biggest things that was different than in years past.”
Grace said the reason he believes he is capable of playing so many different roles in the ‘pen is because of his money pitch.
“It pretty much all starts with the sinker,” Grace said. “It can be a lot of different roles, too. But if they need me for longer innings, then I have to be efficient with my pitches. I have to get outs quickly, and I can get extended little bit longer. I’m not trying to strike everyone out. That’s one of my strengths and I have to play to that.
“If it’s a situation where I need to face lefties, then I feel like I can strike out lefties in a bigger situation where you don’t necessarily need the ball on the ground. You do need a strikeout with runners on. Depending on the role they want me in, I think I can go multiple ways.”
The 2017 campaign was a breakthrough season for Grace, 29, because he found his role with the Nationals, and they realized how important he is to their pitching staff. Grace went 1-0 with a 4.32 ERA in a career-high 50 innings. He struck out 31 and walked 18.
No more bouncing from the minors to the majors just to be an insurance policy. Grace proved he belonged on the big club. He may not have to start a game in 2018, but the fact that he can be that long and short guy that the club was looking for after they did not re-sign Yusmeiro Petit is invaluable. Now he understands what it will take to pitch in 40-plus games and is preparing his body for the task, which starts in a month and a half in West Palm Beach.