On a day when pitchers across the board were getting hit hard, often over the fence, the sight of Brad Hand trotting in from the bullpen for the top of the ninth couldn’t have been especially comforting for Nationals fans.
Less than 24 hours removed from the latest in a concerning string of shaky outings, here was Hand again entrusted by manager Davey Martinez to close out a wild 12-9 victory over the Orioles. And it wasn’t unfair to question if he was the right man for the job at this moment in time.
Three batters, 12 pitches and three outs later, Hand was right in the middle of the handshake line at the center of the diamond, having successfully recorded his sixth save in eight attempts.
What was different about the left-hander this time from his recent subpar appearances?
“His breaking ball was definitely a lot sharper today,” Martinez said during his postgame Zoom session with reporters. “He kind of shortened up his leg kick a little bit, which was able to get him on top of the ball a little bit better. He was really good today, so that’s awesome. That’s good to see.”
It’s only one appearance, of course, so nobody is going to declare Hand fixed for good yet. Here, though, is what can be said with certainty: Martinez isn’t about to remove him from his closer’s role.
The manager gave a full-throated endorsement of Hand as his top ninth inning option prior to the game, explaining that the lefty’s early season success and track record - plus Daniel Hudson’s dominance in a setup role - made the notion of a changing of roles unnecessary for now.
“He’s our guy right now, and what (Huddy) has done for us in the seventh or eighth has been unbelievable,” Martinez said. “I don’t want to mess with that, knowing that Huddy really likes - if we need four or five outs, he’s the guy. And he’s prepared for that.
“I don’t want to start messing with Hand, because Hand has been a guy that’s closed games, and it’s nothing physical with him. If it was something physical, then we definitely would want to do something else.”
It’s easy to forget, because of his recent struggles, but Hand has been far more good than bad in the big picture. He was a perfect 16-for-16 in save opportunities for the Indians last season, with a miniscule 0.773 WHIP and zero homers allowed in 22 innings.
And he had been near perfect for the Nationals in April, failing to surrender an earned run in his first 10 innings of work. But then came a blown save two weeks ago at Yankee Stadium, followed by a loss the next day, followed by another blown save three days later against the Phillies.
Hand righted his ship and retired the side with two strikeouts one week ago in Arizona to close out a win, but then came back-to-back, white-knuckle ninth innings against the Cubs and Orioles that saw him serve up a pair of homers.
The Nationals have been trying to figure out since what was causing this sudden downturn in performance.
“The good news is that there’s nothing wrong with him physically,” Martinez said. “His arm is good; he’s topping out at 94 (mph). Our concern in spring training was that he was only at 90-91. Now he’s up to steady at 92-93, and every now and then 94, so that’s good news for us that physically he feels fine.”
Martinez asked for the Nationals’ analytics crew to break down Hand’s numbers and see if anything jumped out to them. Anecdotally, the manager has noticed how frequently Hand is throwing fastballs up in the zone, a decided no-no for him.
Hand is most effective when he throws fastballs down in the zone and gets hitters to miss his slider, a pitch he was able to throw over the plate enough to get four called strikes on seven tries during Saturday’s appearance.
It was a start. But it probably wasn’t enough to convince fans not to hold their breath the next time Hand jogs in from the bullpen with a slim lead in the ninth.