For all the attention, ink and pixels devoted this spring to the question of who would be pitching the ninth inning for the Nationals in 2017, Dusty Baker knew all along that was a short-sighted take on the situation.
“I’m always stressing to our guys: Let’s win the seventh, eighth and ninth, if necessary,” the manager said. “Which we did the other day.”
Indeed, the Nationals’ opening day victory over the Marlins was made possible by their performance in the game’s final three innings, during which they scored three of their four runs without surrendering anything.
And that’s why, even though it was important to establish Blake Treinen as the club’s new closer, it will be equally important to establish the rotation of relievers who will be setting up Treinen.
Baker has more than his share of viable options in that department. Shawn Kelley excelled as the primary eighth-inning man last season. Joe Blanton likewise enjoyed success as a setup man with the Dodgers a year ago. Rookie Koda Glover has impressive late-inning stuff. Same for left-hander Enny Romero, not to mention fellow lefty Sammy Solís, who pitched a 1-2-3 eighth in Monday’s win.
“Really, we’ve got seven guys down there that can seventh-inning, setup, close,” Kelley said. “Sometimes the games are won or lost in the seventh or the eighth. That’s part of it. So the deeper your bullpen is, that’s the game now. And not to try to hype ourselves up or say we mean everything - cause you’ve got to score, you’ve got to play good defense, you’ve got to have quality starting pitching - but you’ve got to be able to put up zeroes from the time the starter comes out to win baseball games now. And I’d put our bullpen up there with anybody.”
The advantage of having a wide variety of options for those innings is that no one reliever has to be worked too hard. Baker, though, isn’t exactly sure yet how he’ll spread those innings around.
“You’re kind of asking me way in the future,” he said. “Cause right now, we haven’t ridden anybody. So when that day comes, we’ll see. It’s hard to plan the future when it’s not even here yet.”
That said, Baker does intend to be especially cautious with Kelley. Baker and pitching coach Mike Maddux monitored the veteran’s workload last season, trying to avoid back-to-back outings when possible and pitching him on three consecutive days only once.
Kelley, who has had Tommy John surgery twice in his career, appreciates the way he’s been taken care of since signing a three-year deal with the Nationals in 2016.
“If you see over the course of my career, the times I’ve gotten into trouble or had bad outings, it’s been when I reach a certain amount of games per week, or pitches to per week or month,” he said. “The nature of having two Tommy John surgeries, as much as I want to go out there every day, there are days when I don’t feel as good. The fact that I’ve finally in the last year, year-and-a-half, been able to accept that, as hard as it still is, it’s better for everybody if I don’t try to go out there when I’m not 70-80 percent.”
An eight-year veteran, Kelley never was comfortable asking for days off until he came to D.C. and came to understand how important it is to speak up.
“It’s not an easy conversation,” he said. “It’s not something I’ve ever been able to do until last year, to come in and actually admit I could use an extra day. I’d never done that. But it’s something we make a point in spring training, that Maddux pounds into our heads: We need to be accountable to each other. Because it is for the betterment of the team sometimes.”