Matt Williams is learning on the job as a major league manager.
Asked this past weekend what the biggest challenge has been so far this season, he discussed the difficulty he's had, because of the circumstances in some games, with getting his relievers into the roles he envisioned for them when the season began.
"The guys that have been around here a lot have told me that this is unusual," Williams said when asked about all the innings his relievers have thrown early this season.
The Nationals' bullpen has thrown the fourth-highest innings total in the National League through 26 games, with 86 2/3 IP so far, behind only the Colorado Rockies (87 1/3 IP), Los Angeles Dodgers (92 1/3) and Arizona Diamondbacks (102 2/3 IP).
The Nats' relievers, as a group, have the fourth-lowest ERA (2.28), behind only the Milwaukee Brewers' (2.18 ERA), San Francisco Giants' bullpen (2.13) and the San Diego Padres' 'pen (1.94) and the third-lowest FIP (2.95), tied with the Padres and behind only the Brewers (2.87) and the Atlanta Braves (2.14).
"We certainly have good starting pitching and we rely on them a lot to get deeper into games," Williams explained.
"There have been some games where it hasn't happened. And so that has been a tough part, because it's just using our long guy a lot, from either side. We've had a few times where they've been in there in the fourth inning and that hurts your bullpen for not only that day and the next day, but days after that, because then you've got to try to juggle. That's been a challenge, but that's not the norm. Just like we talked about the hitting or any of that stuff, it's not the norm. So you just have to fight through those days or those weeks and get through it and get back on track. But that's kind of been the thing that's bothered me is that I want to use them a certain way, but that hasn't been the case."
The Nationals have brought in fresh arms when necessary, replacing Aaron Barrett with Blake Treinen at one point then bringing Barrett back and now today calling Ryan Mattheus up to give them another arm in the pen since they have enough off days coming up to rest their starters and only use four until Doug Fister is ready to return, with 5/7 against the Dodgers the target date mentioned by Williams today.
Ross Detwiler, in particular, has been forced into a different role than what was described when he was first moved out of the rotation and into the bullpen.
"I liken him to [Justin] Wilson in Pittsburgh," Williams said this spring, describing Detwiler at the time as, "... that type of power lefty out of your bullpen. Kind of that mold."
Through eigth appearances and 13 2/3 IP so far this season, Detwiler's been used sparingly and as more of a long reliever at times, and though he has a 1.98 ERA on the season, his walks are higher than he or his manager would probably like (nine in 13 2/3 for 5.93 BB/9, up from a career average of 3.03 BB/9).
In his last outing against San Diego on Sunday, Detwiler struggled, giving up four hits a walk and three earned runs in 1 1/3 IP after right-hander Taylor Jordan left a game he started with a fever after just four innings.
"It's difficult with Detwiler," Williams said after the game, "because we try to get him in situations where he can go one-plus, but it's been sporadic. So we'll look to get him in there more often, more regular basis. But with the game today, we've got to get him in there because we need multiple innings."
"The only thing that I can think of is the more he pitches the better feel he's got," Williams explained when asked about the 28-year-old lefty's relatively slow start. "Being a former starter, he's got that routine, certainly.
"Up until today, he's walked some guys, but he's done really well. It's been sporadic though. So, we'll see -- if the games go our way, we'll see if we can get him in there more lefty vs lefty matchups, more regular basis."
Some of the short starts his starters have struggled in have forced his hand though.
"It's not frustrating," he said Saturday. "It's the way it's gone, so on any given day you just have to deal with it, whatever it is. It's easy when your starters go out there and give you seven and you set your bullpen up every day. That's the plan, and that's what you hope for, but that never happens.
"So it's been a challenge, but it's good. The bullpen has done fine. We've got some off days coming up, which are needed so we can get a little more healthy down there and make sure everyone is fresh."
Williams has relied on his staff to keep him up to date on who is and isn't available on a daily basis as he gets used to managing the pen.
"We have discussions during every game. Prior to the game," he said.
"Understanding who is available and who isn't. And who is our emergency guy, who could get us an out if we need it. I discuss that with [Steve McCatty] and Randy [Knorr] and Matt LeCroy. Matt's got the best view of everything because he's down there every day. So that's a team discussion every day and we try to talk about it and figure it out. It's been a little unusual though. And like I said, it's challenging."