Bullpen will try to overcome losses of Doolittle, Harvey

Davey Martinez knew this might happen. He’d been through a condensed, three-week spring training in 1995 following the end of the players’ strike, and he remembered the physical damage that caused, on pitchers in particular, once the season began later than originally planned.

So the last thing Martinez is right now is surprised. He had a hunch some pitchers wouldn’t be ready for the regular season grind after the short camp. And wouldn’t you know what happened?

First it was right-hander Mason Thompson, who landed on the 10-day injured list April 10 with biceps tendinitis. Then came the back-to-back blows this week: Sean Doolittle, who sprained his left elbow ligament, followed by Hunter Harvey, who has a pronator strain in his right forearm.

“When I went through this as a player in ’95, (for) a lot of these pitchers, April was pretty strenuous,” Martinez said. “I don’t know if it’s anything related to the short spring training, but you’ve got to look at (that), trying to ramp these guys up. That being said, this is the reason we tried to have so many different options, in case something like this would happen.”

Thompson pitched twice in the season’s first three days before he was placed on the IL. Doolittle pitched in six of the Nats’ first 12 games before telling club officials about the elbow pain that was growing worse. And Harvey, who pitched four times in 10 days after he was called up from Triple-A Rochester, reported physical issues following Wednesday night’s game. By Thursday afternoon, he joined the others on the IL.

That’s three members of the Nationals bullpen out due to injury, three slots that need to be filled by others

The club countered Wednesday and Thursday by calling up left-handers Francisco Pérez and Sam Clay, plus right-hander Erasmo Ramírez, to take those vacant bullpen spots, but it’s not the same.

Doolittle, who retired 15 straight batters to begin the season before getting hurt, was morphing back into the dominant closer the Nationals loved so much in 2017-18. Harvey was beginning to establish himself as a trusted weapon of Martinez’s, even warming up in the ninth inning of Tuesday’s nightcap in case Tanner Rainey couldn’t finish the outing.

“It’s tough, but luckily it wasn’t anything more serious than that,” Martinez said of Harvey’s diagnosis of a pronator strain. “And hopefully with a little rest, we can get him going again and get him back.”

Perhaps Doolittle and Harvey will return shortly after their minimum 10-day IL stints expire, though that may be asking for too much. In the meantime, Martinez has to try to cobble together a bullpen missing two of its top arms.

Rainey, who is 3-for-3 in save conversions, remains the team’s de facto closer. Kyle Finnegan had one notable blowup in Pittsburgh last weekend but otherwise has pitched well enough to merit a setup role. Steve Cishek also is being used in high-leverage spots, though sometimes as early as the fifth or sixth inning.

With Doolittle out, though, there are no accomplished left-handers in the bullpen. Pérez and Clay each have some big league experience, but the results have been mixed. And with Harvey out, Martinez is already turning to the likes of Victor Arano (eight appearances in 15 games) for big situations.

Can that group hold up until a clean bill of health brings back the others? To their credit, Pérez, Clay and Arano were among the five relievers who combined to toss 4 2/3 scoreless innings Thursday and give their teammates a chance to rally late. But they now have to prove they can be successful on a consistent basis.

“That was really good,” Martinez said of the bullpen’s work Thursday. “Those guys came in there and got big outs for us.”

They’ll need to keep doing it, because Doolittle and Harvey are going to miss at least 10 days (and likely more than that) while recovering. It’s up to the rest of an 11-man bullpen to pick up the slack.

And then hope nobody else gets hurt along the way.

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