Ramirez's struggles add to Nats' bullpen dilemma

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Asked this afternoon if he expected his bullpen to be in better shape for today’s game against the Royals after it was severely depleted during Friday night’s loss, Davey Martinez couldn’t help but laugh.

“They’re out there right now,” the Nationals manager said, motioning in the direction of the field from his office at Kauffman Stadium. “I’ll get more of a sense once they get loose and come back in, but I think we should be in good shape.”

This has become something of a daily dilemma for Martinez, who has needed to mix and match his relievers this week way more than in the past. That’s in part because the Nats have been playing in exceptionally close games, which doesn’t afford a manager the opportunity to give his best late-inning arms regular days off.

That was the case Friday night, when Martinez deemed Kyle Finnegan and Hunter Harvey unavailable because each had pitched the previous two days. Andrés Machado and Thaddeus Ward also were unavailable, according to Martinez, because of recent usage, and Mason Thompson was only going to be used in case of emergency.

The situation should be better today. All five of those relievers should be available if needed. Ultimately, though, the Nationals are going to need others to start pitching well enough to be worthy of high-leverage assignments.

On that list is Erasmo Ramírez, a valuable member of last year’s bullpen who hasn’t come close to duplicating his performance so far this year. The 33-year-old, who finished 2022 with a 2.92 ERA and 1.077 WHIP in 60 games, has seen those numbers skyrocket to 5.92 and 1.521 in 20 games so far this season.

The biggest difference? Ramírez is giving up harder contact with more regularity. He ranked in the 64th percentile among all pitchers in hard hit percentage last season, 86th percentile in percentage of balls “barreled” by opposing hitters. So far this season, those rankings have plummeted to third percentile and 27th percentile.

“I think everything’s up (in the zone),” Martinez said. “We’re running some analytical stuff, looking at some of his body movements. I don’t think he’s using his lower half like he did last year. We’re going to work with him a little bit on his mechanics, but I think for the most part he’s been up with everything. We’ve got to get him to start throwing the ball down.”

When a pitcher is dealing with an obvious problem like that, a manager has to decide whether to give him time off to work things out (which is what is currently happening with Thompson, who appeared in 13 of the Nats’ first 29 games but only six of their last 21) or hope he can correct things while still pitching in big spots.

Given the lack of other available options Friday, Martinez wound up having Ramírez replace Patrick Corbin with the bases loaded and one out in the seventh inning. Ramírez surrendered a two-run double to Salvador Perez, a three-run homer to Bobby Witt Jr. and a single to MJ Melendez before getting pulled without recording an out.

“We were in a situation yesterday where we were short,” Martinez said. “He’s a guy I really count on to work innings – whether it’s high-leverage or even lower-leverage – to eat up some innings. But he understands his role. He doesn’t make any excuses about it. He came in here today already and said if I need him today, he’ll be ready to go. But I definitely do want to give him some time to work on the mechanical issues and get him back to who we think he is.”

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