PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - Tony Sipp arrived at Nationals camp Thursday and immediately threw his first bullpen session with the club that signed him to a $1 million contract the previous day. He hasn’t faced any live hitters yet, obviously hasn’t appeared in any spring training games and certainly hasn’t appeared in back-to-back games, all hurdles he’ll need to cross before joining the Nats’ active roster.
So the pertinent question this morning when Sipp met with reporters in West Palm Beach for the first time was simple: Can you get all of your prep work completed in the next 13 days?
“Oh yeah, it doesn’t take long,” the 35-year-old reliever said. “But this is definitely uncharted territory for me. I’ve always felt like spring training is too long, and now it’s put up or shut up, because I’ve been screaming this for a long time.”
Sipp laughed as he said this, one of several witty remarks he offered up this morning. You don’t spend 10 years in the majors as a left-handed reliever without a self-deprecating sense of humor.
For example: Sipp’s comment about joining a Nationals club that has now signed eight major league free agents during an offseason and spring training a majority of franchises around baseball sat out.
“The talk has been they want to stay under the luxury tax,” he said. “I’m just glad I was cheap enough.”
The Nationals had been interested in Sipp all winter but waited out the market until the veteran (who had just completed a three-year, $18 million contract with the Astros) was willing to sign for one year and $1 million, plus a $2.5 million mutual option for 2020 that could be bought out for $250,000.
The bargain shopping comes at a price, though, because now the Nationals need Sipp to get himself ready in fewer than two weeks. Though they won’t force him onto the roster if he’s not ready.
“My biggest thing with him, and I talked to him yesterday is: ‘As much as we want you for opening day, you missed significant time in spring training,’” manager Davey Martinez said. “‘So hopefully you’re ready. But if you’re not, you’re not. We want you to be fully ready, so if it takes you an extra three or four appearances down here, so be it. I want to make sure you get off to a good start, and you get off healthy.’”
In a perfect world, the Nationals would have Sipp available right out of the chute, given the early season schedule. They open with 11 straight games against the Mets and Phillies, who each added big lefty sluggers this year (Robinson Canó, Bryce Harper).
Add the Braves’ 1-2 punch of Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis, and Sipp knows he’s going to have his hands full with lefty mashers in the National League East.
“Oh yeah, there’s definitely going to be a challenge,” he said. “But you know ... I’m definitely welcoming it. I think I do my best work under pressure. I’ve been around a while. I know the task at hand.”
Though he’s known for his success against lefties - he held them to a .191 batting average and .577 OPS and has averaged fewer than one inning per appearance throughout his career - Sipp believes he can be just as effective against righties. He hopes he gets the opportunity to face both sides this season, the final season before Major League Baseball requires all pitchers to face a minimum of three batters (or complete an inning).
“I want to be a one-inning guy,” he said. “But the way managers work, you can only do your job, and the slots that they put me in are usually for left-handers. But over the course of my career I’ve usually had a pretty even split with both.”
Update: The Nationals have blitzed Steven Matz before (remember last summer’s 25-4 game?) and they did it again today. They scored eight runs off the Mets left-hander in two innings, with Adam Eaton, Yan Gomes, Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman all homering to left field. Then Gomes did it again off reliever Eric Hanhold. Then Rendon did it again off closer Edwin Diaz. Then Matt Adams also took Diaz deep, to the opposite field and clanking his shot off the scoreboard. That’s seven homers from the Nationals’ first 23 batters today. Wow. It’s 11-2 in the fourth inning.
Final Update: After the Nats made plenty of noise in the game’s first four innings, they went silent for the remaining five. The Mets put up one run in the seventh via a Rajai Davis sacrifice fly. Nationals win 11-3.