ATLANTA – It’s been a long time since a Nationals manager has had at least four relievers he trusts to pitch late in games. It really didn’t happen at any point during Davey Martinez’s first four seasons on the job. Dusty Baker at one point had the “Law Firm” bullpen of Brandon Kintzler, Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle, but that was a trio, not a quartet.
You may have to go all the way back to 2012 – when Davey Johnson could regularly count on Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard, Sean Burnett, Craig Stammen and Ryan Mattheus to pitch in meaningful situations – to find anything resembling the Nats’ current situation.
It’s early, yes. They’ve played only seven games. But the quartet that closed out Wednesday’s 3-1 victory over the Braves – Kyle Finnegan, Doolittle, Steve Cishek and Tanner Rainey – has quickly emerged into as reliable a relief corps as we’ve seen around here in a long time. And if Hunter Harvey’s eye-opening season debut Monday was a sign of things to come, and if Clippard is headed this way sometime soon once he finishes building his arm up at Triple-A Rochester, the Nationals might just have themselves the makings of a quality, deep bullpen.
“However we line up is going to be a really good combination,” Rainey said. “No matter what the matchups are, whoever gets in the game, honestly, with all nine, 10, 12, however many guys we’ve got down there, I think the bullpen’s been really good so far.”
It has. Though there were a couple of blow-ups during lopsided losses to the Mets and Braves, the relief corps for the most part has been quite effective, certainly when given an opportunity to take over in the sixth inning following a strong starting performance. In their three wins so far, the bullpen has allowed a total of two runs over 11 2/3 innings.
The key to the equation so far? Depth and a variety of different looks coming off the mound.
Rainey and Finnegan are the classic power right-handers, and each has looked the part over the last week. Cishek is the crafty submarine righty, fooling batters with his unusual arm angle and pitch movement. And Doolittle is the lone lefty, reinvigorated after a couple of down years following his heyday with the Nationals from 2017-19.
What difference has Doolittle made to this group?
“It means a ton,” Rainey said. “Just like having so many of those guys interchangeable in late innings, lead, close game, whatever it may be … for him to be back throwing how Doolittle throws, that’s huge. It’s fun to watch.”
Martinez was able to utilize his two veterans to perfection during Wednesday’s win. Doolittle pitched a 1-2-3 bottom of the seventh, needing only six pitches to do it. Then with the left-handed Alex Dickerson due to lead off the eighth, he initially retook the mound and began warming up. But once Braves manager Brian Snitker sent the right-handed Guillermo Heredia into the on-deck circle to pinch-hit for Dickerson, Martinez made his way to the mound and signaled for Cishek to replace Doolittle.
And when the sidewinder retired the side on only six pitches himself, the Nationals had themselves as efficient a two-inning stretch late in a tight game you’ll ever see.
“That’s a beautiful thing,” Martinez said. “And it’s the first thing I said to both of them: You were very efficient today. That’s awesome. They pumped those strikes. And when they do that, we can use them back-to-back days, or three days or maybe even try to get (one batter) out with two outs. They’re throwing the ball well.”
It helps that Cishek and Doolittle, who both have prior closing experience, have bought into the idea of pitching whenever they’re needed, even as early as the fifth inning in one of last weekend’s games against the Mets.
“I see Finny and Tanner typically having the meat of the lineups,” Cishek said after Wednesday’s win. “Their stuff is just incredible. Doolittle can obviously face righties and lefties, you can kind of throw him anywhere. So how it played out today is sort of what I envisioned it looking like, where I could throw in the fifth, sixth, seventh or eighth. I’m kind of all over the place.”
Martinez left spring training saying he didn’t expect to formally name a closer to begin the season, a product both of the depth of options at his disposal and a lack of sure things at that point. But he also made it clear he hoped Rainey would grow into the role.
One week in, Rainey has been given both of the Nationals’ save opportunities, and he has had little trouble converting them.
The 29-year-old, who dealt with injuries and inconsistent performances last season, noted how good health this spring allowed him to enter the season in good shape, which in turn has allowed him to pitch every other day with no concerns.
Of course, the fact his manager doesn’t have to rely on him (or any particular reliever) too much and risk wearing them down, has made a world of difference.
“It makes it easy,” Rainey said. “When you have that many available, your starters go deeper in the games, you can give guys days (off) when they’re needed. Guys stay fresh. And over the course of 162 games, that makes a big difference.”