WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Tony Sipp is confident he’ll be ready to face big league hitters in big situations on opening day. Even if he doesn’t face a big league hitter in spring training.
Sipp, who didn’t sign with the Nationals until March 13, faced live hitters for the first time Thursday, throwing 15 pitches and emerging feeling good about the state of his arm and repertoire. He said he plans to face hitters again on a back field Saturday, after which he should be game-ready.
But because the Nationals leave town and head north following Sunday’s game, Sipp will stay back in Florida and continue to pitch against minor league hitters before flying to Washington in time for Thursday’s season opener against the Mets.
And if that means the first big league hitter he faces in 2019 is Robinson Canó in the seventh inning of a close ballgame that counts in the standings? Sipp is comfortable with that scenario, provided he feels good about how things go against minor league hitters the next few days.
“Every batter counts,” he said. “And I’ve been around enough where I’m not going off the type of caliber of the hitter. I can look at my stuff and how it plays, and if it’s the same stuff that I’m used to bringing to the major league side ... it’s not so much who I am facing, but it’s being fair with myself and seeing if I had the same stuff that I’ve used to start the season with.”
Sipp said his 15-pitch live BP session Thursday - Howie Kendrick, rehabbing from a hamstring strain, was among the hitters he faced - went well and helped convince him he can get himself ready in time.
“It was a lot better yesterday,” the lefty said. “My off-speed was good. I feel like I was strong. But obviously, everything will be on me.”
The Nationals will trust the 35-year-old reliever to know what his arm is capable of and when it’s capable of doing it. Manager Davey Martinez has said he’d ideally like for Sipp to prove he can pitch back-to-back days before including him in the big league bullpen, but there may not be enough time for that.
Sipp is cognizant of that, and he knows he shouldn’t be on the roster if he’s not ready to be used like everyone else in the bullpen. But he believes he can be ready for that kind of usage, provided the next few days go as planned.
“If it’s just going off pure stuff that I had yesterday, then I can definitely face major league hitters,” he said. “But as a relief pitcher, you have to be ready to do it every day. And I’m just trying to be fair to Davey. I want him to just be able to have free reign to use me like any other guy. So until I can do that ... then I think we’re just going to go day-by-day now. But so far, so good.”
Speaking of relievers going back-to-back days, both Sean Doolittle and Kyle Barraclough are scheduled to do just that tonight against the Marlins. Both pitched last night against the Cardinals and emerged feeling strong enough to return to the mound for the first time this spring.
The Nationals don’t appear to feel the need to push Trevor Rosenthal to do likewise before camp ends, though. Rosenthal, who is making his return from Tommy John surgery in August 2017, may not pitch back-to-back days early in the season.
Martinez, though, doesn’t want to do anything right now to disrupt his projected setup man, saying Rosenthal is “at a really good place” right now.
Update: The Nats are off to a good start tonight, leading the Marlins 4-1 after three innings thanks to a combination of power and small ball. Just as he did last night, Adam Eaton led off with a double. Unlike last night, the Nats didn’t strand him at second base. Trea Turner bunted him over to third. And after Juan Soto walked, Anthony Rendon lofted a sacrifice fly to left to bring Eaton home with the evening’s first run. Two innings later, Victor Robles belted an RBI triple off the center field wall, then scored moments later when Eaton doubled off the right field wall. The Nats again turned to small ball to get Eaton home: Turner grounded out to advance him to third, and Soto brought him in with a sac fly. Max Scherzer, meanwhile, gave up a first-inning run but otherwise has been very good and very efficient. He’s through three innings on only 35 pitches, and that’s with five strikeouts sprinkled in there.
Update II: Scherzer ended the fourth inning with eight strikeouts and 41-of-49 pitches for strikes, but then the Marlins started hitting him hard in the fifth. There were three sharp singles, but the big blow was Neil Walker’s two-run homer off a first-pitch changeup. That leaves the Nationals clinging to a 4-3 lead after five.
Update III: I think it’s safe to say Scherzer is ready for opening day. He wound up going seven innings, striking out 12 without issuing a walk. He did allow 10 hits (and three runs) but he was in peak form, upping his velocity to 94-95 mph in his final inning of work. He threw 73-of-97 pitches for strikes. It’s the most strikeouts in any spring training game since Tyson Ross (Joe’s brother) also struck out 12 in 2015. Next up for Max: Opening day vs. the Mets.
Final Update: Up two with two outs in the ninth, Barraclough gave up a game-tying home run to Isaac Galloway. The game ends in a 5-5 tie.