Recent relief woes leave Martinez with few trusted options

While MacKenzie Gore’s laborious start Tuesday night – three runs, seven hits, four walks, 103 pitches in 4 2/3 innings – put the Nationals in a rough position, the young lefty wasn’t the pitcher of record in a 7-4 loss to the Padres. That distinction went to Erasmo Ramírez, who was charged with four runs in one-plus innings of relief, a ragged outing by the veteran right-hander to say the least.

Ramírez, such a bright spot in 2022, continues to struggle in 2023. He now owns a 5.18 ERA and 1.397 WHIP in 19 appearances. Opponents are batting .300 off him.

“It’s tough as a pitcher, no matter what, starting or relieving, every time you go to the mound you just want to do the best you can,” said the 33-year-old, who finished with a 2.92 ERA and 1.077 WHIP in 60 games last season. “And when things don’t come out right, you know you have to try to forget it and move on, execute better and work on stuff.”

Ramírez has struggled, to be sure. But the fact he was even pitching in that particular situation Tuesday night says more about the current state of the Nationals bullpen as a whole. In short, it’s not in a great state at the moment.

When Gore’s pitch count crossed into triple-digit territory, manager Davey Martinez decided to pull his starter with two on and two out in the fifth. He summoned Andrés Machado, who did a nice job to strike out pinch-hitter Matt Carpenter and prevent either inherited runner to score.

Machado threw only five pitches in the fifth. So why not bring him back to the mound for the sixth after the Nats rallied to tie the game 3-3?

“He’s been pitching a lot,” said Martinez, who had given the ball to Machado six times in a 10-day stretch prior to this series. “We needed him to get just that one out.”

Even so, Ramírez wouldn’t normally be the choice for the sixth inning of a tie game. A few weeks ago, that would’ve been Mason Thompson on the mound instead.

Alas, Thompson is in a major funk right now. After dominating his first 10 appearances to the tune of an 0.96 ERA and 0.589 WHIP, the right-hander has given up 10 runs in his last 5 2/3 innings, putting a whopping 19 batters on base in that span.

Martinez isn’t trusting Thompson with high-leverage spots anymore, and the domino effect of that leaves someone like Ramírez to fill that role when the Nationals need someone to bridge the gap between starter and late-inning relievers Carl Edwards Jr., Hunter Harvey and Kyle Finnegan.

Thompson did enter to replace Ramírez when the former served up two homers before recording an out in the seventh. And he got through the rest of the inning without allowing any more runs, though he did walk two of the five batters he faced.

The Nats coaching staff believes Thompson’s recent struggles stem from a mechanics problem; he hasn’t been reaching all the way before delivering a pitch, “short-arming” it instead and causing poor command. There were perhaps some encouraging signs Tuesday.

“I think there’s a little bit of progress being made,” Martinez said. “Now his misses are to his arm side a little bit. There’s definitely progress. I talked to him after he came out of the game, and he said he felt a lot better. His slider was much better. And glove side, his fastball was better. But it’s going to be baby steps with him. He created a bad habit. We’ve just got to get him back.”

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