VIERA, Fla. - One of the inherent flaws in the bullpen that Davey Johnson inherited last season was the inability of Nationals relievers to work more than an inning at a time on a regular basis. The manager was saddled with a group that wasn’t capable of longer outings - or, in some cases, pitching on successive days.
At the end of last season, and through the offseason, Johnson preached to anyone who would listen about the need for durable arms that could be stretched out and used frequently. At least one of his holdovers appears to have been listening.
Right-hander Ryan Mattheus reported to camp looking like he’d lost a substantial amount of weight. Instead, the slimmed-down version of the reliever is just a reconfiguration. Mattheus said he only lost five to 10 pounds while working on an offseason diet and fitness regimen designed to make him leaner and more durable.
“I lost a lot more weight when I was down here in 2010 rehabbing,” the 6-foot-3, 215 lb. Mattheus said. “I didn’t feel the same with the weight being off, and I was only throwing maybe 86 (mph). I told myself I was going to lean down and get stronger, too. Now I feel like I am.”
The 28-year-old Mattheus came to the Nationals from the Rockies in the July 2009 trade that sent reliever Joe Beimel to Colorado. Mattheus was recovering from Tommy John surgery when the Nationals acquired him, and when he finally reached D.C. after intensive rehabilitation, he quickly became a dependable option for Johnson before his season was interrupted by a right shoulder strain that forced him onto the disabled list for almost a month.
Mattheus finished his rookie season with a 2-2 record and 2.81 ERA in 35 games. Knowing that he wanted to make a positive impact in 2012, he spent the winter reinventing himself, so to speak.
“You have to know what to put in your body,” he said. “You can’t be going to the drive-through and stuff like that. It’s watching what you eat and training hard.”
Still, Mattheus faces an uphill battle in making the Nationals’ 25-man roster out of spring training. The bullpen is stacked and there simply aren’t jobs available. Mattheus’ best course of action may be to work hard and be ready if someone falters or gets hurt.
“I got to take the ball every night. Missing the 21 games last year put it into perspective that I have to build for a heavier workload,” he said. “There’s times where you’re going to take the ball three or four times in a row in the big leagues, and that never happens in the minor leagues. ... With that extra work, I needed to be in better shape.”
And the increased competition in the bullpen?
“When you look at it as far as a job, I never looked at it as if I had a job, or had a job guaranteed to me,” Mattheus said. “It’s the big leagues, after all, and they don’t just hand these jobs out. I told myself that I made a good impression last year with the work I put in and I’m going to have to come in and show that I’m ready to repeat that in bigger sample size.
“Nothing’s promised to me here. I’m going to come in and show everybody that I deserve to be on this team, that I’m healthy enough to take the ball every night.”