PHILADELPHIA - Matt Albers has been a professional pitcher for 16 seasons, a major leaguer for 12, a full-time reliever for 10. He’s the guy who is called upon to pitch in whatever situation is needed on a given night. Long relief. Extra innings. Mop-up work. A random sixth or seventh inning here or there. And a whole lot of ninth innings ... with his team trailing.
It’s about as unglamorous a role as there is in baseball, and after more than a decade it surely gets you typecast. Albers has been good enough to pitch in the big leagues all this time, but he has never been good enough (in the minds of his managers) to be given the ball in the most prestigious of situations.
His bullpen a hot mess right now with three key members on the disabled list and two others sporting ERAs over 9.00, Dusty Baker needed somebody to pitch the ninth inning with his Nationals leading the Phillies by two runs. That somebody, at long last, was Albers.
And by the time the entire club gathered at the center of the diamond at Citizens Bank Park to celebrate a 4-2 victory, the big lug of a 34-year-old in the middle of it all had a smile on his face wide enough to be seen from Independence Hall.
In his 461st career major league game, his 437th career relief appearance, his 103rd career game finished, Matt Albers finally was credited with a save.
“Kind of glad it’s over with,” he said. “But it’s just one, so it’s not really moving me up the charts too much.”
No, Mariano Rivera isn’t quaking in his boots just yet. Though surely more than a few Nationals fans (and perhaps even a handful of guys in uniform in the dugout) were a nervous wreck watching the end of this game unfold.
A bullpen already beset with injuries and poor performances was dealt another blow only 15 minutes before first pitch tonight when Shawn Kelley had to be placed on the 10-day disabled list with lower back spasms. The veteran right-hander, who had assumed primary closing duties when Blake Treinen was demoted to a lesser role two weeks ago, hadn’t pitched in six days due to an illness and then felt his back lock up on him this afternoon while trying to get himself loosened up.
“I was going to try to give it a go tonight,” Kelley said. “(Pitching coach Mike Maddux) didn’t think I looked real good on flat ground. So I figured I’d need a few more days anyway, so at that point if they (placed me on the DL, retroactive to May 2) it’d be the best move for everybody.”
The Nationals already had used five different pitchers to close out tight victories this season - Kelley, Treinen, Koda Glover and Enny Romero all have saves, while Jacob Turner pitched the ninth in a one-run game to secure a relief win for himself - and now they were asking yet another member of the bullpen to do it.
“These guys are giving me all they’ve got,” Baker said. “We’re mixing and matching and doing what we’ve got to do to win.”
So it was that Albers found himself jogging in from the bullpen for the bottom of the ninth on this night. It was an all-too-familiar scene for the veteran, and yet it was unlike any other he had ever experienced.
Only one reliever in major league history, Ryan Webb, had finished more games without recording a save. No reliever had more major league appearances with nary a save to his credit.
“Couple years ago they did like a little story, I can’t remember who, but obviously knew I hadn’t got one,” Albers said. “But didn’t really think anything of it, or wasn’t that big a deal. So it’s nice to get this one ... but it’s not the end of the world.”
The world does indeed remain intact after Albers plunked leadoff man César Hernández on the knee with a slider, then proceeded to strike out Aaron Altherr and Odúbel Herrera before getting Maikel Franco to ground out to third to make it official.
And thus Albers became the fifth different Nationals reliever to record a save in the season’s first 29 games. The team’s record: 20-9, best in the majors.
“People have written what they’ve wanted about our bullpen, but I think guys are stepping up lately and filling in roles that they shouldn’t even have to be in,” Kelley said. “And they’re getting the job done, and we’re winning games. So that was really special. Really, really proud of him and happy for him. It took him that long to get his first save.”
For his efforts, Albers was given the game ball and Baker’s lineup card, not to mention the genuine praise of the entire clubhouse.
Whether the big right-hander gets another opportunity to close a game remains to be seen. But make no mistake, he has quickly and surprisingly become a key cog in this ever-changing bullpen, having now tossed 11 1/3 scoreless innings, surrendering only four hits and having not walked any batters to date.
“It’s fun to be a part of a win, whenever,” he said. “Sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth inning, whenever they need me.”