Reliever Hunter Strickland allowed three homers in two games against the Dodgers in the 2019 National League Division Series. But the right-hander had his moments for the Nationals that helped calm down a beleaguered bullpen and he is back for the 2020 season.
Strickland remembers his wife, Shelley, was a bit nervous when he got the call to join the Nats. He spent the first part of the season with the Mariners after five seasons with the Giants. And when he arrived in D.C., his new teammates welcomed him and his family with open arms. Fast-forward to the franchise’s first World Series title, and it was a storybook ending for Strickland in his first season with the Nats.
“It’s what you dream about, without a doubt. I said it when I came over, two days in, which is hard to really imagine, but I told my wife this is one of the funnest teams I’ve played with by far,” Strickland said on 106.7 The Fan at Nationals Winterfest last week. “A month or two later, I told her I got a dream that we are going to win this thing (and) sure enough we did. I think everybody’s relationships on and off the field go a long ways. I’m really excited for (this season).”
You could understand why Shelley would feel a bit of anxiety, especially with Hunter’s history against Bryce Harper and the Nationals. Strickland hit Harper with a pitch that led to a bench-clearing brawl in 2017. Harper had hit two homers off Strickland in the 2014 playoffs.
Strickland joked about possibly being public enemy No. 1 before he arrived in D.C.: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” The crowd roared with laughter in the Nationals team store.
“I was on a bus heading to Texas and my wife was nine months pregnant and we got the call: ‘Hey, you got traded’. All right, well to who? It was right at the deadline, obviously. And then I had to tell her it was the Nationals and she started crying,” he said. “She was like, ‘What are we going to do?’ She didn’t know what to expect. From Day One, it’s gone full circle. It’s been tremendous. I can’t thank you guys enough just for welcoming me and my family and everybody here. It’s been awesome.”
The 31-year-old is settling into his new home and 100 percent healthy heading into this upcoming season, which is something he could not say last year in Seattle. A lat strain limited him to a handful of innings for the Mariners. In D.C., Strickland went 2-0 with 10 holds and a 5.14 ERA in 24 games during the regular season.
Strickland got the opportunity to enjoy a bit of rest and relaxation over the past month, even after the club enjoyed a long playoff run to the World Series.
“The shortened off-season, we had a good reason for that,” Strickland said. “I’ll take that every year. I love the outdoors. I run a waterfowl hunting company with my brother. We actually just got back from a trip to the Cape Cod area, where we were hunting some sea ducks. That was definitely an experience and something new for us.”
Strickland said he and his buddies had to battle the elements to get back to shore.
“You don’t want to get outshot by anybody,” he said. “There is some competitiveness out there. As far as the stressfulness, the last day it got kind of sketchy. There was a storm rolling in. We didn’t know, honestly, if we were going to make it back. Luckily, we are here. It all went well.”
The veteran hopes for smoother seas ahead for the Nats bullpen, which pitched much better in the second half of 2019. Preparing for the 2020 campaign, the club has added right-hander in Will Harris from the Astros.
“You can’t speak highly enough for these guys,” Strickland said. “We actually added a horse. We got Will Harris coming in. Obviously, he’s done a tremendous job the last few years with the Astros. I think from top to bottom the bullpen is pretty stacked. We have options. People really don’t care about their role. They are open to whenever Davey (Martinez) calls their name.”
Sean Doolittle spoke about his excitement with the addition of Harris. Now with Doolittle, Harris, Daniel Hudson and others, the Nats have some depth in the ‘pen. Strickland said there is not jealousy in the bullpen as to which reliever gets which responsibility. They just want outs and clean innings. That was a key to the way they finished last season.
“It doesn’t matter when you name gets called as far as the bullpen aspect,” Strickland said. “Everybody’s ready to go. I think that correlates throughout the whole team, on and off the field and throughout the clubhouse. I don’t think anyone was pressing. What Davey said was, ‘Just go 1-0 today.’ I think everybody really took that to heart. That’s what we are focused on.”
Strickland knows that giving up a big run, especially a homer, is the last thing he wanted to have happen, especially in the playoffs. But as a reliever, he has learned to have a short memory and focus on how to get next guy out.
“The mental part of the game is definitely the hardest part,” Strickland said. “That’s what we are constantly trying to do and trying to fine-tune on a day-to-day basis. We are humans. We have families. We understand what’s going on. We are not perfect. It hurts when things like that happen because no one wants to go out there and get beat. But adversity is going to make you better and that’s what you got to learn from and figure out how to bounce back.”
New this season is the three-batter minimum rule. Strickland does not believe the elimination of the one-batter specialist will affect his job or his teammates’ jobs late in games.
“From a player’s perspective, I don’t think it’s going to change our mindset too much,” Strickland said. “We are there to get the outs that we are called to get. Whether it’s a righty or lefty, whoever is in the box, it doesn’t matter. Whenever Davey calls our name, that’s what we are supposed to do until they take the ball from me. I think it’s more or less more of a challenge on their end, how they are going to manipulate and set up the bullpen and figure out who they want to face the hitters coming up. From a pitcher’s perspective, I don’t think it’s going to hurt us any.”