Trevor Rosenthal was signed to work the eighth inning as a set-up man with experience in save situations if he was needed, but his early season struggles, in his first year back from Tommy John surgery, left Washington Nationals’ manager Davey Martinez searching for an alternative.
Justin Miller looked like he might be a possibility, but a few tough outings, some decreased velocity, and a back issue later, the right-hander ended up on the 10-Day Injured List.
Trailing by a run, 2-1 to the Pittsburgh Pirates, on Saturday afternoon, Martinez turned to 27-year-old right-hander Wander Suero, who’d tossed 3 1⁄3 scoreless after giving up two runs in each of his first two appearances of the 2019 campaign.
Suero made quick work of the Bucs in an 11-pitch, seven-strike, 1-2-3 eighth, and back-to-back home runs by Adam Eaton and Howie Kendrick with two down in the bottom of the inning put the Nats ahead and set Sean Doolittle up with a save situation he converted.
It was an impressive game for the Nationals’ pitchers, with Aníbal Sánchez giving Martinez seven strong before Suero and Doolittle’s scoreless frames, and a welcome change for the relief corps that has been a glaring issue early this season.
“If we can keep the game close,” Martinez said after the win, “... with our offense these guys always feel like they have a chance to win, they do. So being down 1-2 runs, they really feel like they have a chance to put some runs up. Suero did a great job today, passed the ball off to Doo in the ninth, and Doo did his job.”
“I thank the team and Davey for an opportunity to pitch in a big inning like that in the game,” Suero told reporters, via translator Octavio Martinez, as quoted by MASN’s Mark Zuckerman after the game.
“I just try to give my little grain of sand out there and help out any way I can.”
“He did a great job today, and hopefully he continues to do that,” Martinez added after Suero made it 4 1⁄3 scoreless since his first two outings of the season.
“But like I’ve said before, we need all those guys in the bullpen, everyone one them, you can’t just win with three or four guys. Every one of those guys has got to participate and they’ve got to help us and get outs.”
Asked what’s working for the reliever, the second-year skipper said Suero’s cutter (which he’s thrown for 75% of his pitches in the majors), has been a particularly effective weapon.
“He’s using both sides of the plate,” Martinez explained, “he’s throwing his cutters and his changeup, so if he continues to pound the strike zone and throw strikes, his cutter’s nasty. He threw a couple in on [Francisco] Cervelli where he thought he got actually hit and the ball was a strike, so, but when he’s on, he’s on, he can be really effective.”
Martinez turned to Suero again in Sunday’s series finale with the Pirates, bringing him on in a 3-3 game in the top of the ninth.
The right-hander lost a seven-pitch battle with Josh Bell, walking the leadoff batter after he “missed” with at least one pitch he thought were close.
Suero got the next two outs, however, and got up 0-2 on rookie outfielder Jason Martin, but he left a 1-2 curve up in the zone, and Martin hit a ground-rule double to left-center, driving Bell in for what ended up the winning run.
“I like the way he’s been throwing,” Martinez said after the loss, when asked about turning to Suero with four left-handers due up, though he’s said before he trusts the righty against left and right-handed hitters.
“He threw the ball well,” Martinez continued.
“He had 0-2 to 4-2 [against] Bell, and then he had 0-2 on Martin and just couldn’t bury the last pitch. But he’s been pitching well, so he had the hot hand, and like I said, I felt like he could get right and left out.”
There was a mound visit before the at bat against Martin. What did the pitcher, catcher, Yan Gomes, and pitching coach Derek Lilliquist discuss?
“We wanted to see what those two wanted to do,” Martinez explained, “... and they both thought — you know the way that [right-handed bat Erik] Gonzalez [who was due up after Martin] could push out on a cutter, that they could get in on Martin.”
Was he surprised that Suero, who’s used it sparingly, went with a curve on the ground-rule double?
“I thought he would throw another cutter or changeup. I think his curveball is his fourth-best pitch, so... ” Martinez said.
“My catcher calls for the pitch after we had made a couple of pitches with the inside cutter, fastball. I thought it was a good pitch to throw as well and when he called it, I threw it,” the reliever said, as quoted by MASN’s Byron Kerr.
“I was trying to locate it a little differently. I was trying to get it [in] the dirt for him to chase it. Unfortunately, I hung it just a little bit and he made good contact.”
“He’s been pitching well, and getting both right and left out, and he got some big outs, and like I said he just couldn’t finish that last pitch,” Martinez said.
If he can be effective, there are opportunities in the Nationals’ bullpen and the reliever who was signed out of the Dominican Republic back in 2010, could find himself in an important role. Relying on Suero wasn’t the plan when the season began, but there is an opportunity.