It has been a theme that has plagued the Nationals since the beginning of the season. With the bullpen underperforming and getting off to a rough start, the club searched for answers. Then when the starting pitching wasn’t getting the results that were expected from what was considered a strength, it felt like something had to give.
On Thursday night, the Nationals avoided the sweep over Cardinals 2-1 behind another consistent performance from Stephen Strasburg. But after the game, general manager Mike Rizzo met the media first in the press conference room with the news that pitching coach Derek Lilliquist had been fired.
Longtime pitching coach and current minor league coordinator Paul Menhart, who has been with the organization for over a decade, will replace Lilliquist.
“Fourteen years in the organization, five years as our pitching coordinator in the minor leagues and probably has touched each and every Nationals pitcher that has ever hit the mound,” Rizzo said. “He’ll be taking over duties tomorrow in Philadelphia and we’re excited for him to make his major league pitching coach career (debut).”
Strasburg, who pitched 6 2/3 innings and allowed only one run, was surprised to hear that Lilliquist was let go.
“Yeah, it was shocking. It’s a tough role to be in,” Strasburg said. “I loved having him as a pitching coach. I’m a firm believer that every single guy is their own pitching coach. We’re the only ones who seen ourselves throw every pitch that we’ve ever thrown. It sucks because I think as you get older and stuff, you have to rely on what you know and Lilly was always there to share his opinion and give his two cents and I really enjoyed working with him.”
When Strasburg arrived for his first work with the Nationals in the Arizona Fall League in 2009, Menhart was his pitching coach. He later worked with Menhart during his rehab from Tommy John surgery, and was able to develop a nice relationship with him over the years.
“Paul was (there) when I was in the fall league, he was the pitching coach there,” Strasburg said. “Really from then on, he’s kind of been in the coordinator role. But, yeah, I know Paulie very well. I look forward to seeing him.”
Rizzo said he was disappointed that the pitching staff, as a whole, has underperformed. The Nats improved to 13-17 with the win Thursday, but started the day a season-high 4 1/2 games out of first place in the National League East. The team ERA of 4.82 is currently 13th in the National League.
“We felt that both the rotation and the bullpen, we thought that we had some flaws in there,” Rizzo said. “We thought there was preparation issues there and we thought that we wanted to get a new message, a new voice. We felt really good about Paul’s delivery, the way he feels about this organization and his knowledge of both personally and professionally and mechanically of almost each and every one of our pitchers at the big leagues.”
Rizzo said that in relaying the news to Lilliquist after the game, the former Cardinals pitching coach who arrived at the start of the 2018 campaign, was not happy with the decision.
“(I) spoke with Derek and (he) took it like a true champion,” Rizzo said. “Did not agree with the assessment and the decision, and I respect that, but took it like a professional.”
Nationals manager Davey Martinez said this was a difficult decision to make, especially since he has known and worked with Lilliquist for many years in the major leagues.
“I’ve known him for years,” Martinez said. “Played against each other for years, known him across the field when he was with St. Louis, talked. This was hard.
“It was something Riz and I have discussed. At this point, we wanted a new voice, a new face, someone to relay the message a different way. As you guys know, Derek’s a good friend of mine, so this is tough.”
Martinez said he held a pitchers-only meeting after the game and told the staff that the club had moved on from Lilliquist. He said the pitchers were “shocked” when they heard the news.
“This is a business and this is about the Washington Nationals,” Martinez said. “We have to do what’s best for this organization and for our team. This wasn’t a decision that wasn’t made two days ago or two weeks ago. There’s something that was thought out for a while, and needless to say, we got some good pitchers. Our bullpen’s doing well, but if you look, we’re still (13th) in pitching out of 15 in the National League. We have to get better.”
But Martinez also has developed a good relationship with Menhart and believes the longtime Nats minor league pitching coach will bring a fresh voice.
“I kind of feel like moving forward, this is best for the team,” Martinez said. “Paul Menhart, who I’ve known now for a couple years, who I’ve talked to and worked with, he brings a different kind of energy. He’s positive, he’s a tactician, he knows analytics. A lot of our pitchers here have worked with him throughout their whole minor league career. I really feel that this is going to be a good thing.”