The bullpen will be a huge key as to how far the Nationals go this season and how their final month ends up.
The big three of Ryan Madson, Brandon Kintzler and Sean Doolittle are the critical players, but guys like Sammy Solís, Shawn Kelley, Matt Grace and Trevor Gott will get their share of opportunities to be difference makers as well.
How important the bullpen will be was never more impactful to the season than on display Sunday night in their 4-3 loss to the Dodgers. The club was unable to hold a 3-0 lead. The bullpen surrendered the go-ahead run while Solís suffered a blown save. Madson was unavailable after three stressful games in a row to begin the trip in New York.
This week I will spotlight a couple of the key players in the bullpen: Solís and Kintzler.
Kintzler pitched one scoreless inning Sunday night, allowing one walk and striking out one. He pitched in Friday’s opener after also pitching three straight games from April 15-17.
I caught up with Kintzler in New York and he discussed how manager Davey Martinez communicates with him on his status for each game.
“It all depends on my recent usage,” Kintzler told me before the finale in New York. “My pitch count wasn’t very high going into those outings. I had very low stressful innings to well, I felt very strong to where I went to him just before he came to me, to let him know I was strong and I wanted to pitch.
“But there has been a time before where he came and said don’t even bother putting your spikes on, you can wear sweats, flip-flops all day. He’s definitely good at doing that. It all depends on how stressful the innings are.”
Kintzler explained in the Mets series that getting the Wednesday off would allow him to also get the Thursday day off as well, so that would mean two days off in a row. Kintzler had pitched three games in a row.
What is interesting is that even though three games in a row of usage seems to be the capacity of what the coaching staff would like to use when it comes to most of the bullpen, it also marks the time when Kintzler feels like he can finally get into a nice rhythm: that third straight day of work.
“I like pitching that much because I think we get better as the year goes on like that,” Kintzler said. “My arm slot gets more consistent. I don’t have to search for it every day. That was the problem is last week I had a week off, next thing you know I’m searching for wherever things at that’s why I lost it. It works out well for me the more I pitch.”
“Three innings is when I feel I get to my best. Three days in a row, my arm gets into really good shape. I’m not even sore today. I feel good but I want to be smart. It’s a good sign I’m recovering well and my mechanics are in a good spot.”
In 2017, then manager Dusty Baker liked to use the big three, the “Law Firm”, in set innings: Kintzler for the seventh, Madson for the eighth and Doolittle for the ninth.
But last week in New York in game two, Madson pitched the seventh and Kintzler came in for the eighth. Martinez explained the reasoning was based on matchups. Did that rattle Kintzler’s cage or was he OK with the switch around in usage?
“Normally you would like to know your role and your routine,” Kintzler said. “I’m still learning what his feel is. I think he’s trying to learn what we’re good at. (Last Tuesday) I kind of had a feeling he was going to flip-flop it with the top of their order coming up, you know Madson dominates a lot of good hitters, good matchups for him, which I’m totally OK. Obviously once that happened I knew I had the eighth so I mentally prepared for it.”
Kintzler of course knew from his days with the Twins that when you are closing it would always be the ninth inning call. But his responsibility now could be any one of the three final innings.
“It’s nice you have your routine but it’s just the way it is,” Kintzler said. “As long as we have a role and we kind of prepare, we are going to be in there somewhere around that time. It’s better than preparing and all of a sudden your spot comes up and you’re not in. Now you’re kind of lost and you don’t know what to do.”
The juggling act between the big three will go a long way into deciding how far this club can go this season by saving as many starter leads as they can from the seventh inning on. Kintzler is a major piece of this puzzle.
Next time out: Sammy Solís and clean innings