The Nationals’ 5-1 victory Tuesday night in Miami was never seriously in doubt, but there was perhaps one moment late when it appeared things might tighten up. With two outs and two on in the seventh, rookie reliever Andres Machado had to face Marlins leadoff hitter Miguel Rojas.
As any Nats fan who has paid scant attention over the years knows, Rojas is as tough an out as this team ever seems to face. He works long at-bats, gets the bat on the ball, and usually finds empty space to deposit singles and doubles.
So consider what happened next a significant development. Machado froze Rojas looking at a 97 mph fastball on the outer third of the plate, striking him out and ending the inning with two runners still on base and the Nationals still leading by four.
“Huge,” manager Davey Martinez said during his postgame Zoom session with reporters. “I’ve been watching him and using him in different situations. He gets the ball and gets on the mound and attacks the strike zone. And I love it. And he did it again tonight. He’s been big for us. It doesn’t matter what situation I put him in, he seems to be poised and he just tries to get outs. He made a really nice pitch to a really good hitter and got him out looking, which is pretty impressive.”
It’s the latest in a growing string of impressive relief appearances for Machado, a 28-year-old rookie who nonetheless has looked pretty comfortable pitching in high-leverage situations late in games.
And he’s hardly the only member of the Nationals bullpen who has been thrust into that kind of situation, no matter the experience level at the time.
With mostly young and inexperienced pitchers now making up their reconstituted relief corps, the Nats are navigating their way through tenuous territory. When Martinez needs a big out in a big spot against a tough hitter, he no longer has a slam-dunk option waiting for him in the bullpen. Daniel Hudson is gone. So is Brad Hand. Will Harris is still recovering from thoracic outlet surgery. Everyone who remains is under 30, except for curveball specialist Ryne Harper.
Is it good to throw such inexperienced relievers to the wolves like this?
“It can work two ways,” Martinez said. “You can put them into situations, and they’ll learn from it, they’ll grow from it. And then when they come back, they’ve got some kind of experience. And if something other does happen, we can use them accordingly.”
“Something other” has happened more than a few times this month, with one or more relievers on a given night letting things get out of hand. It happened over the weekend in Milwaukee, and as a result the Nationals optioned one of their young pitchers (Gabe Klobosits) to Triple-A Rochester on Tuesday.
The idea - both with Klobosits and with other relievers who were demoted to the minors in recent weeks - is to give them an opportunity to work things out in a low-pressure environment.
“Exactly that: It’s about the pressure, having to feel like they have to go out there and really perform well,” Martinez said. “I talked to Klobo for a while today and he said he’s learned a lot of stuff since he’s been here. He wants to apply it down there and I told him: ‘That’s exactly what we want you to do. You’ve still got to compete as always, but there’s less pressure down there and you can work on some of the things we want you to do.’ “
In their place are rookies like Machado, Mason Thompson and the recently acquired Patrick Murphy. Sometimes, as was the case Tuesday night in Miami, it’s all worked out. Sometimes, as was the case last weekend in Milwaukee, the results have been frightening.
Ultimately, though, the young Nationals understand what they’re getting from the whole experience.
“We’ve got guys that I got drafted with (in 2016), who were in A-ball two years ago, in big spots,” rookie catcher Tres Barrera said. “In that moment, you want to win and compete. But when you look back at it, it’s like, man, we’re growing so much. We’re having fun with the opportunity.”