With deeper bullpen, Nats finally confident closing out games

SAN FRANCISCO - As the bottom of the ninth played out Wednesday afternoon at Oracle Park, the Giants getting an RBI double from Brandon Crawford and suddenly threatening to make things interesting, Davey Martinez might have been tempted to send Sean Doolittle or Fernando Rodney down to the bullpen to start warming up.

Only a week or two ago, that’s probably what would’ve happened. If a game was close late, Martinez would have felt compelled to at least warm up his closer or primary backup, and perhaps even to bring him in to lock down a game the Nationals led by three runs.

Not so much anymore. Thanks to last week’s trio of additions, Martinez now could feel confident letting Doolittle and Rodney (who each pitched the previous two nights) have the day off and trust that the man on the mound (Daniel Hudson) could get the job done on his own.

Sure enough, Hudson did, recording the final two outs to wrap up the Nationals’ 4-1 win over the Giants and complete a series sweep.

“He knows what he’s doing,” Martinez said. “He knows how to pitch. For me, that was a no-brainer.”

It’s a no-brainer when you have legitimate depth in your bullpen for the first time all season. After four months spent leaning heavily on Doolittle, Rodney and Wander Suero, Martinez now has the ability to spread the workload around. Hudson has pitched four times since his acquisition. Hunter Strickland has pitched three times. Roenis Elías made only one appearance, but impressed before straining his hamstring running the bases.

“They’ve all pitched in the back end of the bullpen and done really well,” Martinez said. “With those two guys, and getting Elías back here fairly soon, we’re going to be OK. We have options with all those guys.”

Options is the key word. Martinez can now pick two or three relievers he prefers to use on one night, then save two or three others for the next night. Collectively, it makes the eight men sitting in the bullpen feel like one collective unit at last, one simply passing the baton to the next.

“Yeah, that’s a good way to put it,” Doolittle said. “When things are clicking as a bullpen and you feel like you’re really doing it as a group, that’s what it’s about. Getting the ball to the next guy. You try not to leave a mess for the guy behind you. But you really want to pick your teammates up. You want to feed off what they did. It’s been good. It feels like, as a group, we’ve been doing better.”

They sure have. And it even began before the trade deadline.

Over their last nine games, actual Nationals relievers - we’re tossing out the ugly performances of position players Gerardo Parra and Brian Dozier during Saturday’s blowout loss in Arizona - have posted a 2.90 ERA and 0.968 WHIP, holding opponents to a .198 batting average. They’ve struck out 33 batters in 31 innings while walking only seven.

“With the additions that we got and the other guys that we have, they’re getting big outs for us,” Martinez said. “And it’s good. When you’ve got guys that we got down in that bullpen, and our starting pitchers know: (If) we get six innings and we got the lead, it’s going to be tough.”

It hasn’t taken long for the new guys to assume specific roles in this ‘pen, either.

Hudson has become the fireman, tasked with taking over in the middle of a jam and escaping without blowing it. The veteran right-hander has stranded all five runners he’s inherited since the trade, making him 25-of-26 for the season.

Strickland, who enjoyed success as a setup man for the Giants and was supposed to close for the Mariners this year before he suffered a strained lat muscle, is becoming a regular option for the seventh inning, setting up Rodney and then Doolittle.

Elías, who has begun throwing and doing light conditioning drills while recovering from his hamstring strain, will be asked to get lefties out.

Rainey-Winds-Gray-Day-sidebar.jpgAnd that still leaves Suero and Tanner Rainey as viable options on days when any of the aforementioned relievers need a breather. That’s how Martinez played things out Wednesday, getting a scoreless seventh from Rainey and then a scoreless eighth from Suero before turning to Hudson as his fill-in closer for the day.

It might still take a bit more time for the roles to become completely defined, but the newcomers feel like they’re acclimating to the situation well on the fly.

“There is a little bit of an adjustment period,” Hudson said. “There are some roles that guys are pitching in, and maybe things change when new guys come in. It’s just trying to feel that out and adjust your routine accordingly.”

There’s a long way to go. And this group still sports a collective 6.00 ERA, worst in the majors.

But it’s not difficult to look down the road and see Martinez managing games of real magnitude soon and - for the first time in 2019 - truly believing he has the horses in his bullpen to lock down victories.

“It can be huge,” Strickland said of the potential of this relief corps. “There’s some great guys here that have done a lot in this game up to this point. I think there’s a lot more coming. And I’m glad to be a part of it.”

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