ST. LOUIS - Every manager has to enter every game with a plan in mind for bullpen usage. He considers that night’s starting pitcher. He takes into account who pitched the previous night, who warmed up and who’s available tonight. He sets contingencies for an abrupt exit by the starter and/or extra innings in which someone is needed to provide length. He might even consider who’s scheduled to start the next night, in case a reliever needs to be held back for that possibility.
Davey Martinez had a plan for Monday’s game against the Cardinals. It wasn’t a great plan, but consider the obstacles the Nationals skipper had to face.
Ryan Madson had not only coughed up a 3-0 lead in the bottom of the ninth the previous night in Chicago, he also had revealed a back injury that required treatment and anti-inflammatories. The 37-year-old right-hander did make his way out to the bullpen during the sixth inning Monday, but as Martinez explained: “After yesterday, there was no way I was going to put him out (on the mound).”
Meanwhile, with Gio Gonzalez scheduled to start Tuesday and having had all kinds of trouble providing innings this summer, Martinez had no choice but to try to save Matt Grace to be the fallback plan in case Gonzalez required a quick hook.
So that left five available arms for Monday’s game. Which was being started by Tommy Milone, who was no sure thing to give his team six-plus innings himself.
Sure enough, Milone was pulled with two outs in the fifth, having allowed only two runs but having put 12 runners on base. So Martinez had his bullpen plan ready to go: Wander Suero would be the bridge guy, finishing out the fifth and then returning for the sixth and possible part of the seventh. Justin Miller would follow Suero and try to get through part of the seventh and the eighth. Koda Glover, who impressed in his first two appearances of the season over the weekend, would pitch the ninth. Greg Holland was available if there were any problems. Sammy Solís was available if Martinez wanted to play the matchups with left-handed batters.
So what happened? Suero did a masterful job pitching out of the fifth, completing a scoreless sixth and then opening the seventh. Miller then finished out the seventh and took the mound for the eighth, but proceeded to give up a home run to Jedd Gyorko, and later a one-out single to Kolton Wong.
In came Solís, whose struggles have been well-documented but who was the only available lefty out of the pen. He faced two batters, giving up a single to pinch-hitter Patrick Wisdom, then a go-ahead, three-run homer to Matt Carpenter.
At which point the plan fell apart.
“I don’t know what else to do,” Martinez said when asked specifically about Solís, against whom left-handed batters are hitting .286. “He’s gotta get lefties out. I put him up against lefties. I know it’s not easy, but that’s his job, and he hasn’t been able to do that.”
Solís, whose ERA is up to 5.24, didn’t make excuses for his performance. But neither did he seem to know what the solution to his woes might be.
“You’ve just got to keep going,” he said. “There’s really no alternative. Just keep hitting spots and keep working. I’m not giving up. I’m not giving up on my teammates, and I know they believe in me. Obviously it’s tough right now. Every miss is being punished.”
How much longer, though, can the Nationals continue with their bullpen as currently constructed? This group is without experienced closers Sean Doolittle and Kelvin Herrera (both on the disabled list), previously trusted setup men Brandon Kintzler and Shawn Kelley (both traded away for reasons that weren’t necessarily baseball-related) and at least on Monday night was also without Madson.
By the time the bottom of the ninth rolled around Monday, Martinez probably didn’t want to throw Glover to the wolves. But what alternative did he have at that point? Was it any shock when Glover served up the game-winning homer to Paul DeJong?
It’s not that long ago that the Nationals had confidence in their bullpen. From June 1 through the All-Star break in mid-July, Nats relievers owned a collective 3.29 ERA, bested in the National League by only the Giants and Diamondbacks.
Since the All-Star break, that number has jumped to 4.97. Only the Mets, Brewers and Marlins’ bullpens have been worse.
Help may be coming, but it’s not coming immediately. Doolittle just threw off a mound Monday for the first time in nearly a month and tested out his injured left foot. Herrera is playing catch but has not pushed himself too much since landing on the DL with his shoulder injury.
Maybe there’s a roster shuffle in the works, a fresh arm from Syracuse ready to come in and help at someone else’s expense. But these aren’t major moves, only minor attempts to plug leaks.
For better or worse, the Nationals are going to have to proceed with this version of their bullpen. No matter how many people get shivers down their spines thinking about it.
“There’s no panic,” Solís said. “There’s none of that. I think that’s created from the outside, from the fans. We all believe in each other. We’re working hard. Obviously it’s not going our way right now. But I know I’m capable. I know Madson’s capable. I know Koda’s capable. And they do, too. We all know that. We’re all just trying to pull in the same direction and get some results.”