To put things lightly, this past weekend was a disappointing one for the Washington Nationals. They entered a four-game series with Atlanta sitting a half game above the Braves for first place in the NL East and sporting the best record in baseball over the previous month. However, a disappointing offensive showing resulted in the Nats dropping three of four to their division rivals.
One of the few bright spots for Washington was its bullpen, which combined to allow just one earned run in 18 innings (0.50 ERA) entering the ninth inning of Sunday’s series finale. Yet the pitcher who stepped onto the mound in a do-or-die inning of a 2-2 game wasn’t a member of that impressive relief corps. It was Tanner Roark, who had thrown 98 pitches in a laborious start just three days prior.
The Nats were in an emergency situation. Starter Jeremy Hellickson lasted just one batter before feeling his hamstring tighten up and being forced out of the game. Late-inning relievers Ryan Madson and Justin Miller were unavailable after seeing heavy usage earlier in the series. If it weren’t for Double-A starting pitcher Jefry Rodriguez responding masterfully to being thrusted into his MLB debut, the team could’ve been in much more trouble.
“I expected maybe a couple innings, but he did really well,” Nationals manager Davey Martinez said. “I’m really excited about our future with a guy like that. He went out there, he was poised, pitched out of a couple innings where the balls got away from him a little bit, came back and threw strikes again, and he was really good.”
Shawn Kelley’s home run woes continued when Dansby Swanson left the yard in the seventh, but Sammy Solis and Brandon Kintzler each tossed scoreless frames to keep the Nats well within reach of a victory. The bottom of Atlanta’s lineup was due up for the ninth, and Martinez opted not to use closer Sean Doolittle nor impressive rookie Wander Suero.
The rest was history. Roark gave up a one-out double to Swanson and pinch-hitter extraordinaire Charlie Culberson walked the Nats off with a series-clinching homer. Washington fell to a game and a half back in the NL East.
“That’s exactly what you didn’t want to have happen: Tanner to have to come into that ballgame,” Hellickson told reporters after the game, as quoted by MASN.
“The bullpen throws seven shutout yesterday, and now they’ve got to get 26 outs. It was definitely frustrating.”
It’s easy to point fingers when a plan doesn’t work. But even if it had, and Roark had gotten the Nats into extra innings, would it still have been the right move? Roark labored through 6.2 innings in the series opener, walking five hitters and allowing four runs. With Hellickson’s next start in doubt, particularly at that time, forcing a starter to pitch on short rest is a risky move — even despite Roark expressing to his manager he felt comfortable doing it.
Martinez hasn’t been subtle about keeping Doolittle in his back pocket for save situations. When the team played 14 innings against the Braves on Saturday, Doolittle was playing soft toss in the visitor’s bullpen for three innings before finally entering the game once Washington finally took the lead. Miller, who had been called on to get more than six outs just once in his career prior to the game, tossed three innings before Doolittle took over in the 14th.
Most bullpens are operated using this approach, but it’s been thrust into the spotlight in a negative way in recent years. Look no further than the 2016 AL Wild Card Game, when Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter opted to keep closer Zach Britton in the bullpen in extra innings in favor of former starter Ubaldo Jimenez, among others. Britton finished fourth in Cy Young voting that season, but never took the mound that day because a save situation never came.
Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona has been lauded for his use of All-Star reliever Andrew Miller. He has just six saves since joining the team at the trade deadline in 2016 but has thrown the second-most innings in high-leverage situations among Indian relievers over that span. Although he’s battled injuries and has seen a drop-off in production so far this season, he’s been Cleveland’s most reliable reliever in tight situations.
It’s not like Martinez has been afraid to go outside the box with his bullpen usage.
Hellickson hardly ever faces lineups the third time around. He’s not afraid to use a reliever to face just one or two hitters and will ask his bullpen arms to throw consecutive innings if needed.
Doolittle is the best reliever on the Nationals. Although a save situation in the ninth inning may be the most coveted spot a reliever could have, it’s not always the most important. Perhaps Martinez was saving Doolittle on Sunday for the 10th inning, when the top of the Braves’ order was due up. Regardless, you still have to get to that 10th inning in the first place, and Doolittle was the Nats’ best shot at doing so.