As the bottom of the eighth arrived Thursday evening, the Nationals leading the Blue Jays by three runs, Davey Martinez needed to decide which two relievers he would put on the mound to try to close out this victory.
Neither would pitch in the game.
It all worked out. Rainey did surrender a towering solo homer to very-early-season American League MVP frontrunner Teoscar Hernández, but that’s all he or Hudson allowed while closing out a 6-4 win.
But the decision to pitch those two and not the others was further evidence of two sentiments that are irrefutable right now: 1) One week into the 2020 season, Rainey and Hudson have earned Martinez’s trust, and 2) Harris and Doolittle aren’t right at the moment.
“Those guys right now are taking the load, doing well,” Martinez said during his postgame Zoom session with reporters. “But we definitely want these other guys back as soon as possible.”
Bullpen management is always subject to more scrutiny than any other strategic decisions a manager must make during the season. And Martinez’s usage has been under a microscope since he first arrived in Washington two and a half years ago, culminating with the overwhelming praise he received for his deft maneuvering during last October’s title run.
But this 60-game sprint of a season presents a whole new challenge for every manager: How much are you willing to push your best relievers, especially in these opening weeks, in attempt to secure every precious win available to you?
In Martinez’s case, the answer is clear. He’s riding the two best arms he’s got right now, even if it means leaving a couple struggling veterans idle in the bullpen.
There was more context to Thursday’s decisions. With an unexpected four-day break after the weekend series with the Marlins was postponed, Martinez felt he could afford to push guys to the limit for the series finale against the Blue Jays, knowing they would have plenty of time to recover before they take the field again Tuesday night against the Mets.
On top of that, Martinez wanted to do everything he could to avoid pitching Harris and Doolittle. Harris has “a little bit of a groin thing going on that we’re trying to take care of,” the manager said. Doolittle, meanwhile, is trying to get his mechanics in order after a shaky summer camp and opening appearances of the season, during which his fastball velocity has often dropped to 87-89 mph.
To wit: Moments after the game ended, Doolittle could be seen throwing in the bullpen, trying to figure some things out.
“I know what this season is going to come down to is: Which team, which pitchers, can make the adjustments the quickest, and get into midseason form quicker than some other teams?” Doolittle said earlier in the week. “So there’s definitely a sense of urgency how we’re going about our business. I’m not satisfied how I’m throwing the ball right now. But I’m moving in the right direction, and I feel really close to being able to help this team in the back end of some ballgames.”
Until then, Martinez will continue to rely on Rainey and Hudson in high-leverage spots. Hudson, of course, is used to it, after his late-season run in 2019. But this is new territory for Rainey, who as a rookie last season slowly worked his way into a handful of key situations but now is being treated as equal to his more-established bullpen mates.
But five appearances in six days?
“We were hoping to score a bunch of runs so we didn’t have to use him,” Martinez said of Thursday’s game. “But he said he was available and he felt good. My thought was: We have so many days off, we thought we could use him today. He says he feels good. He was the right guy in that moment.”
One week into the season, it’s clear Martinez believes Rainey and Hudson are the right guys for just about every big moment. We’ll now find out if they’re ready to handle the demands of that responsibility, both mentally and physically.