WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Every pitching coach has his own philosophies, his own advice for those who take the mound under his watch. And when a new coach takes over a club, he typically wants to start imparting his wisdom on his pitchers right from the get-go.
Derek Lilliquist, though, didn’t inherit any old pitching staff. He arrived here earlier this month to a Nationals staff that features the man who won the last two National League Cy Young Awards, another who finished third in voting, another who finished sixth in voting and yet another who pitched for Team USA in last year’s World Baseball Classic.
“Here’s the ball,” Lilliquist said with a laugh, holding out his right hand. “They have their routines, and I’m just here to facilitate. I’m here for them. They have everything they need. Go get them. They’re veterans. They know what they need.”
Don’t infer from any of this that Lilliquist doesn’t intend to do much coaching of the Nationals pitching staff. He has plenty to offer his charges, even those with elite track records.
But rarely does a coach inherit a staff with this kind of collective resume. Lilliquist has coached elite staffs before in St. Louis, headlined by Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright. But nothing like this.
“It’s impressive,” the former big league lefty said. “Good group of kids. Probably the best group in terms of staff that I’ve been a part with at this point in spring training. Because essentially you’re looking at it and there’s a huge competition for the fifth spot (in the rotation) and there may be a spot or two in the ‘pen, depending. You’ve got 31 guys in camp for, what, three spots, essentially.”
The Nationals indeed already have a pretty good idea what their opening day staff will look like. So Lilliquist’s task this spring is less about evaluating pitchers and more about getting to know them and what makes each individual tick.
Lilliquist, who turns 52 on Tuesday, isn’t a one-size-fits-all kind of coach. He works with each pitcher individually and tries to come up with a distinct plan that works for each.
“Trust, communication ... that’s what it boils down to,” he said. “I got your back, you got my back. We communicate honestly with each other, whether it’s good or bad, and figure out ways to get it done.”
Let go by the Cardinals after seven seasons on their big league coaching staff, Lilliquist found himself with an equally high-profile job soon after. When the Nationals decided not to bring Dusty Baker back for a third season, they also had no choice but to let their coaches explore other opportunities until a new manager was hired. Mike Maddux pounced on Lilliquist’s old job in St. Louis, then Lilliquist returned the favor and was hired by Davey Martinez to come to D.C.
Martinez, previously the Cubs’ bench coach, had known Lilliquist casually from three years competing against each other in the NL Central. Now the two are getting to know each other much better and emerging impressed with what they’ve learned.
“He’s very detailed,” Martinez said. “He’s passionate about what he does, and he’s passionate about every pitcher. So he’s got something for every pitcher individually, and also some key points as a group. He’s built this relationship already with the pitchers. I can see them conversing, working on different things. It’s fun to watch.”
Lilliquist will implement some of his own personal touches on the Nationals staff. He makes a point to jot down exactly how many pitches each guy threw in a bullpen session, keeping track of it all over the course of the entire spring. He’ll likely eliminate Maddux’s old ritual of having the next day’s starter chart his teammate’s pitches. But he’d like instead for that starter to watch a teammate’s between-outings bullpen session and offer up observations and advice.
In the end, though, the guy now in charge of the Nationals pitching staff knows he doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel here. He’s been handed the keys to a bunch of fancy cars, and most of them don’t need any significant tune-ups.
“To be honest, playing against these guys, you know what they’ve got,” he said. “And they’re a special group.”