Menhart settling in, wants pitchers’ focus on preparation

On May 2, Paul Menhart took over for Derek Lilliquist as the Nationals pitching coach. He started his new position with a 10-game road trip from Philadelphia through Milwaukee to Los Angeles.

In the midst of the Nationals’ four-game set at Dodger Stadium, I had a chance to sit down with Menhart, who has been a coach in the Nationals system for 14 seasons, to see how his first two weeks on the job were going. Menhart spoke about what he wants to accomplish as the pitching coach and what he has focused in on the first three series at the helm.

“It’s definitely an easing in process but there are some things that I firmly believe in and that is mainly based upon preparation, being here early and taking an extreme amount of pride in your craft,” Menhart said. “The only way to do that is to get here and be a family. The veteran starters, they have their routines, but that bullpen over there, that’s got to be a family and we are going to do this together. And I am going to be out there with them every day.”

Preparation is a word you hear from Menhart a lot when you talk about getting his pitcher’s ready. And you can hear from talking to him, he knows his focus is on the bullpen.

Three pitchers on the staff have known Menhart the longest: Stephen Strasburg, Erick Fedde and Matt Grace.

Grace remembers working with Menhart through his minor league stops and what he concentrated on each time they got together. He sees those same qualities with Menhart now.

“Yeah, he’s always been the same guy,” Grace said. “I’ve known him my whole career here. I’ve had him as pitching coach several times. He’s really good at keeping things really simple but potentially those simple things can be big adjustments or have a big effect. But keeping it small and keeping it simple is kind of his thing and that’s what I’ve always taken from him.”

Grace nodded his head when I asked him if Menhart focused on preparation each day and before each game.

“Yeah, he’s been talking about that,” the southpaw said. “Just having that preparation and being organized for each series, knowing what our job is, knowing what our role is and who we might face.”

Another left-hander on the club, newcomer Dan Jennings, got to know Menhart during his first road trip. Jennings is also learning about his new teammates and hoping to get back into a nice rhythm after a couple of rocky outings in Philadelphia and Milwaukee. He sees what Menhart can bring to help him get better too.

“We as players, it’s something that we try to do is intermix our individual preparation with team preparation with everything that kind of goes along with that,” Jennings said. “Obviously from an individual standpoint, we got to figure out what we need to do to get our bodies ready.

“From a team standpoint, it becomes scouting reports and all that stuff which (Paul) has been great out there every day with us, working with us. He’s just been very, very readily available all the time which is great. It’s been an easy transition for me with Paul. I think everyone has appreciated his energy and enthusiasm and all that he brings to the table.”

menhart-paul-meeting-with-media-sidebar.jpgThe organization is aware that fixing the bullpen and getting the relievers into a nice groove will take some time. But Nationals manager Davey Martinez has seen these first two weeks why Menhart is so highly regarded within the club.

“He’s been good. He has settled in really, really well,” Martinez said. “He really has. He’ll try to continue to keep it going. I like what I’m seeing.”

Here’s a look into part of Menhart’s manifesto as a pitching coach for the Nationals. His way of thinking begins early each gameday: be the first one to the park.

“First bus,” he said. “Let’s get rockin’ and rollin’. The worst feeling that you can have as a pitcher, and even me as a coach, is the feeling of being rushed: not having enough time to either decompress, prepare, whatever it is. The feeling of being rushed is never a good feeling because then you are unprepared and winging it. You can’t wing it up here. There’s no winging it.”

Menhart spoke about right-hander Fedde’s transition from starter to reliever last week. He said unlike a starter, the reliever sometimes has no idea when the bullpen phone will ring.

“You do not (know when you will get in to the game),” said Menhart. “That’s why you have got to pay attention to situations. You have to start getting your body moving a little bit when you recognize some things might be going in the wrong direction and you might get the call to get us out of a jam.”

Similar to a Little Leaguer who asks to play first base each game because he knows he will likely be involved in every play, a reliever knows he could affect every game too - sometimes pitching in back-to-back games.

“It’s probably one of the most fun jobs being a bullpen guy because you are just on call,” Menhart said. “You are like a 24-hour doctor. Get that call in the middle of the night. You don’t know when.”

Preparation is key. But Menhart also mentions the word “family” when he talks about his bullpen.

It’s no mistake that all the bullpen lockers on the road in Los Angeles were bunched together in a corner on the right side as you walk into the clubhouse. Jennings said they spend more time together with their fellow relievers during the season then they do with their own real families.

“It’s all part of it,” Menhart said of the family mentality. “I’m not saying it wasn’t like that before but I wasn’t here so I only know one way in that regard and I know it works. And just because they are big leaguers doesn’t mean they still don’t need instruction and they don’t need attention, because they do. They all want to get better and I’m here to aid and abet.”

Menhart said communication is important between him and the pitchers, but also the pitchers to each other.

“In our meetings they are totally inclusive, where everybody’s willing to say whatever the heck they want to say and I encourage it,” Menhart said. “I want dialogue. We are in this together. Let’s come up with a plan and even if the plan doesn’t work, just execute the plan. There’s a pretty good chance it’s going to work. That’s the way I look at it.”

In replacing the veteran pitching coach Lilliquist, Menhart said he was never told he needed to make radical alterations. He was told to just come in and be the pitching coach. That’s it.

“I was never told that things needed to be changed. I was told to just ‘be you’. That’s what I was told, ‘be you’. So, I am being me,” Menhart said. “Like I am talking to you right now. I’ve always talked to you like this. I don’t know any other way but ‘me’. I’m not going to try to be someone else.

“That’s the other thing I teach them. I don’t want you to be somebody else. Erick Fedde, I want you to be Erick Fedde. It’s nice to emulate somebody but you can only be one person and that’s yourself. Figure out who you are. Once you figure out who you are, then they can exploit that strength.”

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