Austen Williams figured something was up when he was summoned out of Fresno’s bullpen in the third inning of Friday night’s game at Las Vegas. He knew he wasn’t being called in to pitch that early in a game.
Sure enough, Williams’ hunch was correct. He was being called up to Washington, and now he had to race the clock (and the sun) to get to D.C. in time for today’s 4:05 p.m. game against the Pirates.
Williams’ itinerary: A red-eye flight from Las Vegas to Chicago, then a connecting flight to Reagan National Airport, followed by a 3-hour nap in a room that adjoins the Nationals’ clubhouse before he took the field with the rest of the team’s relievers to play catch and prepare for the game.
“Other than maybe not having quite as much sleep as I’d like, I feel good,” the right-hander said. “I’m ready to go if they need me tonight, for sure.”
In the Nationals’ ongoing game Wheel of Relievers, the pointer has landed on Williams’ name. With Justin Miller placed on the 10-day injured list with a lower back strain, the club needed another arm from the minors. Perhaps Williams will be the one to help stabilize what through 12 games has been the majors’ worst bullpen.
“We feel like he’s a guy who can help us,” manager Davey Martinez said.
The Nationals are basing that off Williams’ dominant spring, one in which he maintained a 0.00 ERA and retired 22 of the 24 batters he faced. They didn’t bring him north, opting instead to keep Miller and Wander Suero in their opening day bullpen. But they knew Williams would be among the first relievers summoned if a need arose.
“It was obviously a bittersweet thing: I made it to the last day, and I really wanted to make the opening day team,” he said. “Not only did I just want to play for the Nationals right now, but I think that opening day in baseball is one of the most special things in sports, and I wanted to experience that. It was a little bittersweet, but I knew that what I did in spring was going to put me in a good spot. And, two weeks later, I’m here. Everything I did in spring worked out pretty well.”
It remains to be seen how Martinez incorporates Williams into the bullpen, but the manager has no choice but to consider every option at this point given the way things have gone to date.
Martinez said he stayed back at the ballpark late after Friday night’s game and tried to concoct a bullpen plan for today’s game. This has become a daily chore, trying to find a combination that works and takes into account who’s available to pitch that day based on past usage.
The plan Martinez emerged with after Friday night’s session? It may involve Suero, who has done a nice job pitching out of jams in recent appearances and now might be ready to step up into a setup role.
Ultimately, though, Martinez recognizes members of this current bullpen group, no matter how they’ve performed so far, are going to have to be able to contribute when called upon.
“Every day I tell them: ‘We’re in the here and now,’” the manager said. “‘Forget about the past. You’ve done this before. You guys have been successful. Just get outs. One out at a time. One pitch at a time. Just get outs. Don’t worry about the moment. Just stay in the here and now and focus on just getting the out.’ For me, that’s how you have to approach it.”
Update: Both of today’s starters cruised through their first three innings today, but then each surrendered a run in the fourth. Aníbal Sánchez allowed a triple to Josh Bell (after Juan Soto couldn’t make a diving catch in left field and the ball rolled to the wall) and an RBI double to Colin Moran to get the Pirates on the board. But the Nats responded in the bottom of the inning against Chris Archer. Anthony Rendon doubled to right, extending his streak of games with an extra-base hit to a remarkable 10, then scored on Kurt Suzuki’s two-out single to left. So it’s 1-1 after four.
Update II: The home run off the 0-2 pitch has been a recurring problem for the Nationals. And it happened again just now. In the driver’s seat against Melky Cabrera, Sánchez grooved an 0-2 slider and watched it go soaring into the right field bullpen. That’s the 17th homer surrendered by a Nationals pitcher on an 0-2 count since the start of last season. That’s the most in the majors, and four more than any other team. Because of it, the Nats trail 2-1 after six.