MIAMI - Jonny Venters has been called up to join major league rosters under more noteworthy circumstances than this, from his major league debut with the Braves in 2010 to his return in 2018 following a six-year layoff. That doesn’t mean the 34-year-old reliever didn’t still get that familiar feeling of accomplishment when he got the call Monday to join the Nationals in Miami.
“I couldn’t have been more excited, especially with the way this team’s been playing lately,” he said. “And everything I’ve heard is the guys in the clubhouse are great, the staff is great, the front office is great. I’m pumped to be here and be a part of it. Hopefully I can help in any way and win some games.”
That’s what the Nationals are hoping for from both Venters and fellow veteran Fernando Rodney. Both relievers were promoted to the big league bullpen today, both tasked with helping stabilize a bullpen that has improved in recent weeks but is still prone to some spectacular blowups.
Not that either reliever is a sure thing. Far from it. Venters was released by the Braves after allowing 13 runs (nine earned) with a 3.643 WHIP in nine games earlier this season. Rodney was released by the Athletics after giving up 15 runs with a 2.233 WHIP in 17 games.
Both signed minor league deals with the Nationals a month ago. Neither put up eye-popping numbers in the minors, but each offered evidence of improvement, enough to convince club officials to call them up today.
“They both checked all the boxes,” manager Davey Martinez said. “The biggest thing was getting them to start throwing again. When we signed them, they weren’t pitching that much. So we wanted to make sure they were ready. And they did that. ... We thought this was the time, that they’re ready.”
Rodney essentially takes over the spot vacated by Trevor Rosenthal’s release on Sunday, some 12 hours after the right-hander’s latest and greatest in-game meltdown. Like Rosenthal, he has experience as a big league closer. And he enjoyed success as recently as a year ago, when he had 3.36 ERA and 25 saves for the Twins and A’s.
Rodney, who at 42 is the oldest active player in the majors right now, believes the work he did at Triple-A Fresno positioned himself to step in now and contribute.
“Get my three outs when they give me the chance,” he said. “I think we got a lot of young guys here in the bullpen that need maybe some help in some situations. We can work together and make it work.”
Venters technically replaces Kyle McGowin, who was optioned to Fresno today to open a spot on the 25-man roster. The Nationals cleared a spot on the 40-man roster for him by transferring Jeremy Hellickson to the 60-day injured list. Hellickson, out since May 20 with a shoulder strain, has been shut down from throwing. “It’s going to be a little longer process than we thought,” Martinez said.
Practically speaking, Venters takes on a role as another left-handed specialist in a Nationals bullpen that already has three other southpaws: closer Sean Doolittle, plus veteran Tony Sipp and versatile Matt Grace. Venters has held left-handed batters to a .186 batting average and .545 OPS over his career.
He said he spent the last month working with Double-A Harrisburg pitching coach Michael Tejera on mechanical tweaks that have allowed him to find the strike zone more regularly, something he’ll need to do at this level to stick around.
“We worked hard trying to make some adjustments, and they’re starting to feel good,” he said. “Hopefully it will carry over.”
It’s up to the two newcomers to help add to what the other six have done in recent weeks to improve what had been the majors’ worst bullpen.
“I told them: ‘You’re going to have to be ready to pitch on any given day,’” Martinez said. “They’ll have some high-leverage situations. I like Venters, especially on lefties. And Rodney, he was a closer for many, many years. He understands high-leverage situations. We’ll see how they fit in.”