Todd Coffey was running in the outfield before Wednesday's Nationals-Phillies game, doing the same conditioning routine he does every day. He felt a cramp in his calf in his second-to-last run, but by the time he got back to the clubhouse, he knew it was more than that.
It turned out Coffey had strained his left calf, and after two days of treatment, the injury was still hurting him enough that the Nationals decided they couldn't spend a roster spot on him, especially with a doubleheader coming up against the Brewers today.
The Nationals put Coffey on the disabled list this morning, officially making a move they had planned yesterday when Collin Balester got the news he was going to be called up from Triple-A Syracuse. The move is retroactive to April 9, meaning Coffey can come back next Sunday. He plans to return by then, but for now, the Nationals need another option.
"It's just a day-to-day type of thing," Coffey said. "But in the bullpen, you can't be day-to-day."
Coffey has been getting treatment several times a day - "I'll tell you right now, it's very painful to have someone sit there and dig on it four times a day," he said - and he said the strain is already getting better. He's still able to throw bullpen sessions to keep his arm sharp, but can't move around enough to field his position.
"If someone laid a bunt on me, I'd just be sitting there and looking at it," he said.
So for at least a week, the Nationals need another reliever. Their first thought was Balester, who posted a 2.57 ERA in 17 relief appearances last year, had a strong spring and had pitched five shutout innings at Triple-A Syracuse to start the year. He was the last reliever not to make the roster this spring, mostly because he still had a minor league option and the Nationals decided to keep Rule 5 pick Brian Broderick.
Though Balester knew he'd get an opportunity soon if he didn't do anything to take himself off the front burner, he didn't expect it'd be quite this quick.
"I felt like I was good enough to make the team (out of spring training), so it helped me keep a good attitude and keep my head up," Balester said. "I knew at some point, they were going to need me, even if it was September. So I just played hard, and ended up coming a little earlier than I thought."
The 24-year-old hasn't been able to catch on permanently in the majors, struggling as a starter before remaking himself into a reliever last year. He might be back at Syracuse in a week once Coffey is healthy, and in the past, Balester said he's spent too much time worrying about his destination. This time, though, he said he's not going to concern himself with it.
"I'm not thinking about that. I'm thinking about if they call me today to pitch, I'll pitch," Balester said. "Hopefully this lasts forever. In years past, I would probably worry about it too much. ... I've learned a lot in this game. This game has been good to me and I've had some times that I've struggled a lot. I was able to just know everything was going to work out. I had a good attitude about it. If you have a good attitude, you can bounce back pretty easily."