Left-hander Dan Jennings made his first appearance with the Nats April 30 and pitched 2/3 of an inning without allowing a run against the Cardinals. His second stint was May 1, against St. Louis again, and this time he was even better: one inning of scoreless relief with two strikeouts.
But then he hit a rough patch.
In his next three outings, Jennings allowed a combined five earned runs while recording only three outs. The 32-year-old surrendered the game-changing three-run shot to Rhys Hoskins in the sixth inning of a 4-2 loss at Philadelphia May 3. He took his first loss of the season and blew the save opportunity.
In that situation, after a few tough appearances, a younger pitcher might go back to the drawing board and tweak mechanics, adjust his approach and try to alter his technique. But in the midst of his eighth season, Jennings has learned to remain confident in his ability and not panic.
“Just staying consistent. I think the unfortunate thing in a couple of bad outings is I threw the ball well,” Jennings said. “I knew before going into my last outing I sat down with Paul (Menhart, the Nationals’ pitching coach) and said that’s something that you really have to be conscious about because, naturally, it seems to me when something doesn’t go your way you try to make changes, and that is something I wanted to be active about was not making changes.”
Jennings allowed the Hoskins homer and then followed that up with two appearances in Milwaukee, where not much went well: four hits, three walks and four runs allowed. The Nats were swept.
“I think my last outing I tried to get too fine because what I did the day before didn’t work,” Jennings said. “But I threw good pitches, and sometimes it doesn’t work out well in this game. It’s a hard, constant battle. No matter what anyone says, if you are going through something, what you really need is that one or two outings where you go out and throw the ball well. That’s kind of a mental reset for you.”
The former Nebraska Cornhusker said he has learned after close to 400 appearances in the big leagues that even when you don’t have success, you still know how to get hitters out: Go back to what made you good. His career WHIP is 1.43, even though this season he has started out at 4.00 in six games.
“I think everybody gets down on themselves at times a little bit, but you have to be conscious of the fact that things do turn around,” Jennings said. “I’ve been in this game a few years, and it always does. I’ve gone through enough struggles in this game I think the struggles are good. Otherwise, what good is having success unless you have struggles? Otherwise success is just another thing.
“Going through those struggles, you learn from it, you build from it and you’re better for it. You may not learn to embrace those struggles while you’re going through them, but after the fact I don’t think I’ve ever gone through something that I didn’t appreciate after the fact.
“After my outing in Philly I felt like I really threw the ball well the next day, but the results didn’t line up. As human beings, we tend to see that as a failure, unfortunately, and when you fail you look to change stuff. That’s why I am trying to stay who I am. Stay within myself. Just basically get back to the basics. Keep doing what I have been doing for a long time.”
Jennings was true to that game plan Sunday when he returned to the mound against the Dodgers following five days of rest.
He arrived in the seventh inning in the series finale with the Nats down 2-0 and a runner in scoring position with two away. He intentionally walked the righty-batting pinch-hitter Chris Taylor so he could face lefty hitter Max Muncy. Jennings got Muncy to line out to first base to end the threat.
“It’s trying to get back to the basics,” Jennings said before Sunday’s game. “What do I do well? What do I not do well? What am I trying to do? Am I trying to do anything different? Am I trying to do anything crazy? You just got to stick with what you know.”
Jennings said his years with the Marlins and White Sox have taught him to not panic when things do not go well.
“Years ago when I was going through something I said ‘I’m going to try to change everything, who I am,’ and that’s not going to work,” he said. “So ever since, I’ve tried to consciously stay the same person mechanically, physically. From there it just becomes execution and commitment to each pitch where if all of sudden you’re not throwing strikes or you’re not throwing the ball where you want to, you get hesitant a little bit and you let up a little bit, and that’s what leads to bad pitches. It sounds simple enough on paper: Just throw with conviction. But it’s not.
“You get out there and all of a sudden you are facing one of the best hitters in the game, and all of a sudden you are 2-0 to them and how do you throw that next pitch with conviction? If you are going through struggles it’s a little bit harder to do, but if you are rolling a 2-0 count means nothing. You just need that first outing from the first pitch. You just throw the ball well and then you hope that lines up with results.”
Nationals manager Davey Martinez agreed with Jennings’ philosophy of sticking to what got you here, even when you struggle through a couple of games and you watch as others in your bullpen also have rough outings. Martinez’s message is “Stay true to yourself.”
“We talk about this all the time. Just know who you are and pitch to your strengths,” Martinez said. “For me, that’s the key for those guys coming in from the bullpen. There are good hitters here. You are going to have your rough days but be ready, because the next day you are in there. Don’t try to make things up as you go along. Just know who you are and pitch to your strengths.”