Bullpen gets two key arms back, drops Grace from roster

The Nationals made more changes to their ever-changing bullpen today, and there's still one more big change to come in a few days that could finally solidify that group for the season's final month.

The Nats activated Roenis Elías off the injured list and Hunter Strickland off the paternity leave list this afternoon, bringing all three relievers acquired on July 31 together again after a long wait. Needing to clear roster spots, they designated struggling Matt Grace for assignment and optioned catcher Spencer Kieboom to Double-A Harrisburg.

Sean Doolittle, meanwhile, is on his way to Frederick to pitch an inning of relief tonight for Single-A Potomac, potentially his final rehab step before coming off the IL by the end of the weekend.

Elías' return is significant for the Nationals, who acquired the lefty from the Mariners at the trade deadline and were counting on him to hold a prominent role in their reconfigured bullpen, only to watch him strain his right hamstring trying to beat out a chopper to short in his very first appearance.

Healthy again, and having emerged from Wednesday's simulated game strong, Elías is active and itching to make his second appearance for the Nats.

"He threw the ball really well the other day," manager Davey Martinez said. "I talked to him. He felt he's ready, wants to pitch."

The Nationals are counting on Elías to be the reliable left-hander they've sorely needed all season, but they also acknowledge the reverse splits he posted for Seattle for four months. Martinez plans to try him out against left-handed batters, but also said he won't shy away from using him versus righties.

"Here's a guy that I really believe you could plop him in against two righties and a lefty in the middle of the order, and he'll succeed," the manager said.

Doolittle, already eligible to come off the IL from a minor knee issue, was potentially going to return tonight. But the closer, who endured through a string of ragged outings earlier this month that prompted his trip to the IL, said he felt like he still needed to face hitters again after his simulated game Wednesday.

The Nationals decided to have Doolittle travel to Frederick and pitch an inning tonight for a Potomac club still trying to reach the Carolina League playoffs. He's likely to pitch one clean inning after the starter departs, possibly the fifth or sixth inning, after which he'll decide if he's ready to come back.

"I need to be sharper if I'm going to help this team when I come back," he said. "I think the worst case scenario is: I come back, and they expect to be able to count on me and I'm not able to pitch like I need to pitch to help the team win. We've just got to fine tune some things. I hope it's not too much longer."

If things go well, Doolittle could be activated Sunday, which also happens to be Sept. 1. With teams allowed to expand their rosters to 40 players, the Nationals could bring their closer back without having to drop anyone else.

They could've waited with Elías, as well, but decided it was important to have him back now, and so that led to the decision to designated Grace for assignment.

Matt-Grace-Dejected-After-Walk-Off-HR-Gray-Sidebar.jpgA key member of last year's bullpen who posted a 2.87 ERA in 56 appearances, Grace never recaptured that form this season, posting a 6.36 ERA in 51 games. The biggest issue: He couldn't keep the ball in the park. Opponents hit 11 home runs off him in only 46 2/3 innings.

"For two years - whatever his numbers are - he had many different roles, took the ball and never complained, went out there and tried to pitch to the best of his ability and tried to help us win," Martinez said. "At this point in time, it gives us a little flexibility moving forward to next month. That's how the decision was made."

With Grace coming off the 40-man roster, the Nationals have one opening to add another player in September. That spot could go to one of two right-handers: Greg Holland, the veteran reliever who signed a minor league deal with the Nats after getting released by the Diamondbacks, or Aaron Barrett, who after missing nearly three seasons with two major elbow injuries returned to pitch the entire year for Harrisburg and could now get a chance to return to the big leagues for the first time since 2015.

Jonny Venters, who the Nationals took a flyer on earlier this summer, will not return to pitch this season after undergoing surgery three weeks ago for a torn anterior inferior capsule in his left shoulder, the veteran lefty told MASNsports.com's Byron Kerr.

Venters, who already had what he describes as "3 1/2" Tommy John surgeries on his elbow during his long career, only appeared in three games for the Nationals before landing on the IL. Now the future of his career is in question.

"I'm not sure if I'll go all the way through with (rehab) again," Venters told Kerr. "We will see, though. See how it feels."

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