Johnson going the superstitious route, searching for bullpen consistency

Hoping to change the Nationals’ offensive mojo, Davey Johnson opted to stop shaving recently, leaving the Nats’ skipper with a short gray beard.

The Nats responded by putting up five runs in a win over the Phillies last night. Johnson had planned to shave after the hits and runs started coming, but his players convinced him to leave the whiskers for the time being.

Johnson obliged.

“My wife said I could keep it one more day,” Johnson said with a smile. “I was ready for a breakout again today after 10 hits and five runs, but the players said I should keep it. They think it makes me look better.”

Johnson then took a playful shot at one of his former players with the Mets, Keith Hernandez, who is currently a spokesman for “Just for Men”. Well, I should say Johnson tried to take a playful shot at his former first baseman.

“I might have to call up Hernandez and use ‘Just Gray’ or something,” Johnson said.

While Johnson can try to fix the Nats’ offensive struggles by leaving the razor in the drawer, there’s another problem his team is dealing with that can’t be combated with unorthodox measures. Nearly a third of the way into the season, Johnson still isn’t content with the roles that have been established in the bullpen, a ‘pen that has posted a 4.15 ERA as a whole, 22nd-best in the majors.

There are a number of factors that have played into Johnson’s lack of comfort with his bullpen rotation: he’s spent much of the season with just one left-hander in the ‘pen up until Fernando Abad’s recent promotion, leaving a couple right-handers to try and pick up the slack against left-handed hitters; Henry Rodriguez still isn’t really trusted in high-leverage situations; and Ryan Mattheus will now be out around six weeks after breaking his hand.

“I thought we were getting close to everybody knowing their role out there. But with the loss of (Mattheus) and the new guy coming in, Abad, I’ve gotta create something where they each have roles that I’m comfortable with and they’re comfortable with,” Johnson said. “Stammen’s been pretty consistent, and Clip, and Soriano, but the other guys, I’ve put it on me that I haven’t found a niche for everyone to be comfortable with.”

Johnson likes going with A and B bullpens, using one set of relievers one day and another set the next, in order to keep everyone fresh. But the Nats continue to be wary of using Rodriguez in close games, Mattheus was struggling against left-handed hitters prior to his injury (they were hitting .452 off him), Drew Storen has been inconsistent and Abad is not really proven at the big league level.

That leaves Johnson scrambling to get guys in the right spots.

“That’s my biggest concern, getting those roles established in the bullpen,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to get buried with Clip and Soriano. I need to get some other guys where they are comfortable and mentally prepared for their roles. That keeps me up more than actually the offense, because I really feel the offense is going to come around.

“Now that the (starting) pitching seems more consistent, I may have to move (Craig) Stammen into a little different of a role. If Henry got any kind of problem, I always like to bring a sinker-baller in with guys on base. I would do that with Stammen or Mattheus, primarily if Henry is giving me a problem, I can bring a guy in looking for a groundball.

“Not having the configuration I had last year, it’s been a little harder to separate (into A and B groups) and get the kind of balance you want on both sides of the bullpen.”

If the starters continue to work deep into games, that could free up Stammen to move into more of a seventh-inning set-up role, allowing him to serve as a bridge to the late-inning relievers. That’s a role that Mattheus occupied when he was healthy.

If the starting pitching is more inconsistent, Johnson will have a hard time getting into a comfortable rotation with his relievers, that is unless Rodriguez or Abad are able to step up and prove that they can be used in big spots with the game on the line.

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