It was a mere four weeks ago when the sight of Brad Hand taking the mound for the ninth inning was enough to cause Nationals fans to clench their teeth, sweat profusely and assume the worst was inevitable.
After giving up two runs to the Orioles on May 21 and turning what should’ve been an easy win into a high-stress one, Hand found himself the owner of a 4.11 ERA. He had been scored upon in five of his last six outings. He had surrendered homers in three of his last four. He had been charged with two blown saves and two losses.
Four weeks later, it seems silly to think everyone was panicking about the Nationals closer at the time. In 11 outings since that ragged stretch, Hand has posted a 1.50 ERA. He has successfully converted eight of eight save opportunities.
What changed? According to the 31-year-old lefty, not that much.
“I feel like my stuff’s been the same over the course of the whole year,” Hand said during a Zoom session with reporters following Wednesday’s 3-1 win over the Pirates. “I had a few outings where I got myself in trouble with some walks. But other than that, the stuff’s been there. It’s just the results at times haven’t been there. But the stuff feels good right now.”
There is, of course, a little more to it than that. Hand has rediscovered his elite form by throwing more strikes, especially early in at-bats, avoiding hitter’s counts that can put pressure on a pitcher to be perfect. His velocity has gone up a tick or two, such as in Wednesday’s game when his fastball consistently reached 94 mph.
But more than anything, Hand has managed to stay the course. His response to his six-appearance rut wasn’t to seek an overhaul of anything. It was to stick with what he knew has been working for him for years.
Steady work also appears to have been good for him. It should be noted that each of the last two times he’s been scored upon, he’s been working on at least four days’ rest. Anything less than that, and he’s been money.
“I don’t necessarily know why,” he said. “Maybe it comes down to being a starter back in the day. I didn’t have very much success as a starter. Because those four days off, I wanted to get back out there. So I felt like when I got into the bullpen role, pitching every day, I felt like my stuff was sharper and more consistent. It’s just one of those things. As long as I’m feeling well, I always want to be out there.”
The occasional day off is good, though. And it certainly benefitted Hand on Wednesday. Because he didn’t pitch the previous day, and because the Nats are off today, Martinez had no qualms about asking his closer to record a five-out save. And Hand responded, striking out Pirates cleanup hitter Gregory Polanco and getting Phillip Evans to fly out to end the top of the eighth on seven pitches, then finishing it off with a scoreless ninth.
“I knew there was a possibility,” he said. “I knew who was coming up in the eighth. I knew Polanco was up fourth. So going into the eighth, I was expecting the phone call. With the day off tomorrow, I didn’t pitch yesterday, so I was expecting to get up there with Polanco coming up fourth.”
Hand’s season can now be broken down into three distinct parts. He was brilliant early, failing to give up an earned run in any of his first nine outings. Then came the blip, when he was scored upon in five of six appearances. And now has come the return to form, with two runs allowed in his last 11 games.
Put it all together and you get a 2.96 ERA and 13 saves in 15 tries over 26 total relief appearances.
And because of it, when Hand emerges from the bullpen for the ninth inning, you may find yourself not clenching your teeth or wiping sweat off your brow quite so much.