It’s hard to believe Nationals manager Davey Martinez isn’t aware of the angst and frustration three simple words - “He’s our closer” - cause for a fan base tired of watching ninth-inning leads frittered away. For the three weeks Sean Doolittle has been struggling to lock down games, Martinez has dug his heels in and drawn a line in the sand, holding firm that the southpaw will remain his closer because he’s the best option to protect a lead with three outs to go.
When Matt Williams uttered those same words at the end of his second - and final - season at the Nationals’ helm, it became a rallying cry for those favoring his dismissal. Williams was equally resolute that his preferred ninth-inning arm, Jonathan Papelbon, was the best choice to close out games. As it turned out, Williams uttered those words all the way to the unemployment line.
Martinez may not be in such peril, but he’s going to have to move off his ninth-inning mantra for at least the next 10 days, while Doolittle rehabilitates a balky right knee. Better to get Doolittle off his feet for a bit and into a program aimed at complete recuperation rather than have him continue to pitch, favor the tendinitis-ridden knee and develop some other malady that’s not already an issue.
But who gets the ninth with Doolittle on the shelf?
Chances are Martinez will not lock one person into that role, at least not to start. The trades engineered by general manager Mike Rizzo at the July 31 deadline brought in three veteran relievers, all of whom have some experience at closing out games with varying degrees of success. Then there’s right-hander Fernando Rodney, the senior member of the relief corps in both age (42) and career saves (327). Though Rodney would be a lot more interesting a candidate were it not for the 9.42 ERA and .345 opponent batting average that he amassed in 17 games with the A’s this season before they cut ties with him in late May.
Asked before Sunday’s game how he would formulate the back end of his bullpen in Doolittle’s absence, Martinez suggested he’d continue the same tack he’s been using to choose arms for the seventh and eighth innings to set up Doolittle. So there’s some playing matchups in the Nationals’ future.
“What I’ve been doing is matching guys up according to lineups and stuff like that,” Martinez said. “It’s actually worked pretty well with those guys. We’ll see how that plays out. But these guys have pitched a lot - the new guys have pitched a lot. Have to be very careful with them, too. A couple of those guys have come off some serious injuries. And I want to make sure we have them for the remainder of the season.”
In other words, he doesn’t want to overuse right-handers Daniel Hudson and Hunter Strickland, or lefty Roenis Elías once he returns from the injured list after rehabbing a right hamstring strain sustained running out a ground ball on Aug. 2. No sense solving one problem by creating another, especially with a postseason berth on the line.
So who’s most likely to get the chance to close for the next week and a half - or longer, depending on Doolittle’s recovery?
Hudson has only 12 career saves, and not more than five in a single season. Only one of those saves has come since he was dealt to D.C. from the Blue Jays, but he’s arguably been the most impressive of the new acquisitions, fashioning a 1.08 ERA, a save and three holds in 10 games spanning 8 1/3 innings. He’s holding batters to a .200/.242./.300 slash line and hasn’t yielded a home run. He’s generally pitched an inning or less, only once getting four outs. But he’s a hot hand who might suffice as a temporary placeholder.
Strickland has 21 career saves, with 14 of them coming in 2018 with the Giants, when he shared the closer’s role with lefty Will Smith. Since coming over from the Mariners, he’s posted a 1-0 record with five holds and a 1.29 ERA over seven innings covering eight outings. Opponents are slashing just .179/.259/.261 off Strickland, whose powerful right arm has led to him being mentioned in closer conversations before. He started this season as the Mariners’ closer, recording saves in Seattle’s first two wins over the A’s at the Tokyo Dome. But he went on the IL with a lat strain on March 30, returned to make one more appearance with the Mariners on July 28 and was dealt to the Nationals.
With Strickland shelved, Elías seized the opportunity to close out games for the Mariners, saving 14 games in 16 tries. His ERA was high (3.64) and he gave up eight homers in 47 innings, but he also struck out almost a batter a frame. With the now-departed Tony Sipp and an ineffective Matt Grace not performing from the left side, Rizzo sought to fill a need in obtaining Elías, only to see him hurt in his first outing with his new club.
But Martinez reported Sunday that Elías was progressing in his recovery.
“The last two days, he had very, very minimal pain, so he’s able to do a lot more stuff,” Martinez said. “He’s in the weight room strengthening. He’s been throwing pretty much every day. The next thing, as soon as he gets ready, is to get him on the mound again and do, like, a light bullpen. We’re hoping by the next few days.”
Rodney is another alternative, but he’s been a mixed bag since signing with the Nats and being summoned from Triple-A Fresno. His 3.24 ERA looks nice enough, but he’s 0-3 with two saves in four tries as a National. When he’s on, he’s been good. When he’s not, he looks a lot like the guy who wore out his welcome in Oakland.
There’s always the chance the Nats could catch lightning in a bottle with veteran righty Greg Holland, who resuscitated his career last year with a strong second half in D.C., parlayed that success into a one-year, $3.5 million deal to close for the Diamondbacks, then saved 12 of 17 games before ending his time in Phoenix with a 23.63 ERA in his final five appearances. Rizzo has taken a shot on veterans with closing experience - Rodney, Brad Boxberger and Holland - with mixed results. Holland is currently at Double-A Harrisburg, where he’s made two hitless appearances. But he’s the longest of long shots in this scenario.
Honestly, there’s no real reason for Martinez to outline what he plans to do at all. With Doolittle working the ninth, teams could hold back right-handed pinch-hitters for a crack at the lefty. Not detailing his preferences gives Martinez a competitive advantage in the late innings. But until Doolittle returns from the IL - and returns to form - someone will be getting the call in the ninth, and Martinez may simply choose to mix and match as he goes along, playing hot hands and matchups.