The Nationals made a somewhat surprising move to shore up their bullpen with addition of veteran right-hander Michael Blazek on Monday. Right-hander Justin Miller was moved to the 60-day injured list and right-hander Kyle McGowin was optioned to Double-A Harrisburg.
The 30-year-old Blazek has not pitched in the majors since 2017, having spent most of his career with the Brewers. His best season was 2015, when he went 5-3 with a 2.43 ERA in 47 games for Milwaukee. Nationals manager Davey Martinez, then the bench coach with the Cubs, remembered Blazek’s dominance that year.
“He pitched well when he was with Milwaukee,” Martinez said. “We signed him. Had to go through that whole spring training thing in Triple-A. He started throwing the ball really well. Last time he was up to 97 mph, good curveball, good slider, mixes in the changeup. We thought right now would be a good time to get him, while he’s pitching really well.”
Blazek was able to get his four-seam fastball up to 97-mph with Triple-A Fresno the last few weeks. In 23 games for the Grizzlies, Blazek struck out 28 hitters, allowing only 10 walks, with a .224 batting average against.
In his last eight games since June 25, Blazek has posted a 1.74 ERA with 13 strikeouts over 10 1/3 innings, allowing only five hits in 35 at-bats (.143).
“He will attack you with the fastball, but his secondary pitches were really good,” Martinez said. “Curveballs to lefties, sliders to righties, occasional change, but very effective. Knows how to pitch. Uses all his pitches well.”
Martinez envisions using Blazek as a middle reliever: “He’s an experienced guy that has pitched in the sixth, seventh, eighth inning before.”
Blazek has worked his way back from an injury that forced him to miss the entire 2018 campaign. After his recovery, he was worried he might not get another shot at pitching in the bigs. Then the Nationals called.
“2017 was my last year. I got hurt last year, so that was tough,” Blazek said. “Just going through a whole year of basically rehabbing, getting the arm healthy again. It feels really good. I felt really good at the end of the year last year, and I was able to go into the offseason, at least, with that.
“But it was a tough, tough offseason because I really didn’t have anything,” he explained. “There was nothing lined up, didn’t really have an offer. I think it was an independent ball team. I went down there for about a week and spent some time out there. Some people helped me out. I can’t thank those guys enough. They know who they are. When I find the right time, I’ll be able to thank them for just kind of getting me back in here and get an opportunity to play.”
Blazek said that in his rehab time he became rejuvenated and convinced he could get back to the majors. But in that time he had to alter his focus a bit. Blazek worked on regaining confidence in his four-seam fastball. At times with the Brewers, he got to the point where he was relying on his slider and curveball more than 50 percent of the time.
“It was just a matter of just showing everyone that I can still pitch,” Blazek said. “I would say I’m not the same guy I was in 2017 or even before that. I kind of had to reinvent myself a little bit. The game changed. I really didn’t get to see that last year because I missed the whole year. Still do what I do and do the normal stuff, but it’s different now. You kind of pitch a little differently. You have to adapt to it. For me this year was, honestly, just coming back in here showing everyone I can still do it. And hopefully I can.”
Blazek can throw a four-seam fastball, sinker, curveball, slider and changeup. But like Sean Doolittle, Blazek learned that too many ingredients can ruin the soup. So recently he has focused on using only a few of his pitches.
“Sometimes that’s hurt me in the past, where I just kind of use too many things out there and just not simplify it,” he said. “I like to keep anything I can, just in case one day one thing’s not working I got the other stuff.”
Blazek said the league also has moved on from his style of pitching in 2015-2017. So he knows now he must use the four-seam, and not be afraid to challenge with it. Hitting 96-97 mph has helped him regain that confidence in his fastball.
“I think just the way guys are hitting the ball now,” Blazek said. “Guys are good. These are major league hitters. You have to be able to adjust as well. Not to say my stuff in the past won’t work here and now, but just the ability to give that and add that to my arsenal is something that I need to do. Whether that’s the four-seamer, ride the ball a little bit more, instead of just throwing nothing but sinkers.”
Blazek’s new philosophy is to not be too predictable with his sinker.
“It used to be just trusting (the sinker), trusting the fastball, instead of being the guy that likes to mix everything up, whether it’s curveball, slider,” Blazek said. “Because I think that’s what I used to do, is just really mix everything up. It’s kind of different now. I like to pitch off the fastball a little bit more.”