The Nationals bullpen got off to an incredibly rough start in 2019. The Nats struggled in losing 31 of their first 50 games before key additions helped them to recover as the season progressed. But the Nats bullpen's overall ERA for the regular season was still an uncomfortable 5.66.
In a season with just 60 games on the schedule, that early season weakness from a year ago cannot repeat itself or the Nats will be in big trouble.
Daniel Hudson, a critical acquisition during the season, became more important in the World Series, lifting the Nats to the title when he recorded the Game 7-ending strikeout of the Astros' Michael Brantley.
This season his presence will be just as important. Tuesday, he got his final tune-up opportunity for the season, throwing one shutout inning in the sixth, allowing one hit and striking out two in the Nats' 6-4 rain-shortened exhibition win over the Orioles.
Nationals manager Davey Martinez used Hudson, Doolittle and Tanner Rainey in relief in Tuesday's exhibition finale.
"Got to see Rainey come in," Martinez said. "Doo. Huddy. I thought Huddy threw the ball really well tonight, and his velo was up, so that was nice."
Doolittle got knocked around a bit in the seventh. Similar to Stephen Strasburg Monday night, Doolittle pitched without his normal velocity, hitting 88 to 89 mph with his four-seam fastball.
Is Martinez concerned about that?
"You know what? I have really no idea," he said during his postgame Zoom call. "Everything looks really good. His mechanics look great. I was talking to Paul (Menhart) today. He was better today. He was up at 89, couple at 90. I think it's just going to come. Like I said, he might be a little slower than the other guys but his velo will get up there in the 90s again. We just have to wait and see. The ball was coming out nice. Threw some good fastballs today. I know he's mixing in a little bit more breaking pitches. I know he wants to. We'll see what happens."
Hudson, Doolittle and Harris' success in the late innings will go a long way in deciding how far the Nats go this season as well.
The middle relievers are still a work in progress. Wander Suero and Roenis ElÃas are not available, placed on the injured list July 13. Neither took part in the summer workouts this month at Nationals Park.
Nats starter Patrick Corbin has seen the guys that are in camp do well and believes they can produce this season.
"Yeah, I think that's going to be a strength for us," Corbin said. "Everyone knows how last year went, and I think having Daniel Hudson for a full season, bringing in Will Harris, and then having some of these younger guys with great stuff, and (Kevin) Quackenbush being a veteran pitcher. I think overall we're deeper in that area. Guys gained a lot of experience last year, like Rainey, Suero. I think we're excited there. We're going to probably lean on them a little bit more with the starters maybe not being able to get over 100, 115 pitches out of the chute, so ... I think we're a pretty confident group with those guys there."
Martinez has given a lot of relievers opportunities these past few weeks to show what they can do.
Right-handers Rainey, James Bourque, Kyle Finnegan, Javy Guerra, Ryne Harper and Kevin Quackenbush got a lot of exposure during the summer workouts. Erick Fedde and Austin Voth are likely in play for the No. 5 starter role or even long relief. Plus, there are a plethora of pitchers available and eligible at the Nats' alternate site in Fredericksburg, Va., if Martinez is looking to shake things up to begin the season.
The skipper says he has some decisions to make in the bullpen as he finalizes the 30-man roster for Thursday night's opener against the Yankees.
"I think our depth is pretty good," Martinez said. "We brought in a guy, Harper, this winter, and he's looked really good. We've got other guys that can do the job: Finnegan, we got in the trade, and he looks good. He's a guy that has a lot of intensity, throws the ball really hard. I know he's been working with Paul on an off-speed pitch. But he looked good this spring. (Sam) Freeman threw the ball well. We've still got some decisions to make, but I like what we have so far."
Freeman might be a big key now because he is the only other left-hander who has been mentioned recently. ElÃas is not available and Doolittle is the closer. Martinez might want to add the southpaw to begin the season.
And that brings us to another important element of the pitching staff coming together for the 2020 campaign: the starters, the middle relievers and the closers all must share the burden for this team to succeed. If one is overused, it can affect the entire team. Martinez is well aware of that balancing act. The Nationals cannot rely on the starting staff to be relievers, as they did in their successful postseason.
"I'm worried about both, really," Martinez said. "It's a catch-22. Relievers, you've got to be careful about back-to-back. These guys haven't even done that yet. We've got to be really careful how we do that. We've got our pitchers stretched out to 75, 80 pitches - Max (Scherzer) was at 87 the other day and he bounced back well - so we just have to keep an eye (on them) as we go along.
"The first go-around isn't going to be so bad. We've got to watch as we get going to see where these guys are at. There's going to be a lot of watching the high-leverage innings, the pitch counts every inning, and things of that nature, to see how these guys are and what we need to do to keep them fresh all year."