Washington Nationals’ relievers, as a group, started play on Thursday afternoon in Citi Field with a National League-worst 11.02 ERA, though their 3.54 FIP was actually 4th-best among NL teams. Their .459 BABIP-against is sure to come down. Their 42% LOB% (Left On Base%) was the worst in the NL as well.
Yes, it’s only five games in, and yes, it’s likely to change in the coming weeks as the relievers shake the rust off and things warm up, but it’s not good, at all, and neither their second-year Manager Davey Martinez or GM Mike Rizzo was sugarcoating anything when they discussed the issues on Wednesday.
Martinez spent a good portion of his post-game presser after the Nationals’ 9-8 win over the Philadelphia Phillies talking about the need for things to change, quickly, after a rough start to the 2019 campaign.
Baserunning gaffes, bullpen issues, sloppy play in general, it all played in to the 2-3 start, and after they played an ugly game against the Phillies and came out on top, the skipper went somewhat negative, which was rare for a manager who tends to stress the positives.
“I’m not thrilled about how we’re playing,” Martinez said, “but I’m happy that the boys kept pushing, and it’s a testament to them. But we’ve got to start playing better. We worked all Spring on doing the little things, and we’ve got to make it happen. The baserunning stuff has got to go away, the defense, you know, every day we’ve got to be clean, we’re going to be good, but we can’t play like that every day and expect to come back and win games, we can’t and they know that. I’m proud of them for playing the way they played, but we’ve got to start playing baseball every day. Limit the mistakes and start playing baseball.”
Martinez was asked how he’d get the message across to his team.
“We’ll have conversations. The bullpen, that’s part of it. You saw what happened in the [eighth] inning, so we’ll address that, we’ll fix that, I know those guys will come around.
“But the little nuances of the game, like I said, the baserunning, getting back picked on a bunt, not getting a bunt down, those little things, we’ve got to get better, we’ve got to get better.”
Rizzo, a believer in track records, told 106.7 the FAN in D.C.’s Sports Junkies on Wednesday morning that he had faith the relievers who are struggling will be able to turn it around.
“Let’s just take a step back and see where we’re at down the road,” Rizzo said. “The bullpen’s got about, what, nine or so innings under its belt so far, that’s a very, very small sample set.
“I look at track records, as you all know, as you guys do too, as all of our analytical people do, and you start with guys who have a track record of success: Tony Sipp last year he’s a sub-2.00 ERA, Matt Grace is a sub-3.00 ERA, 56 games,  games for Sipp, [Sean] Doolittle is an All-Star, 25 out of 26 [saves], he gave up a couple hits in a five-out affair, [Wander] Suero is a 3.59, [Justin] Miller is a 3.61, [Trevor] Rosenthal has got  saves and a career [3.18 ERA], he hasn’t pitched in two years, so allow him to knock a little rust off. You’ll remember, some of these closers that come in after Tommy John, either a year after or the second year after, Greg Holland is a prime example, he pitched poorly for the first month or so, and we got a hold of him and he pitched great for us, so let’s give ourselves a fair sample size. It’s frustrating when relievers come into the game and can’t hold the lead or keep the deficit at a make-able [margin], but we’ve got to give these guys a chance, they’ve got the track record, they’ve earned it, and we’re interested to see how these guys get back on track and I trust them.
“I trust their track record, I know what they’ve done in the past, and we’re ready to move on to today’s game, and you know you’re only as good as today’s game and that’s what we’re focused in on.”
While it was just four games in at that point, Rizzo said before the fifth game of the season that he too just wanted to see the team playing cleaner baseball.
“I just want to play better baseball,” he explained.
“These games against these good elite teams, the Mets and the Phillies so far, and just I want double play balls to be double plays, I want fly balls to be caught, I want relief pitchers to throw strikes and not walk people, and that type of thing, the stuff that we pounded, the stuff that we’ve talked about all season and all winter, that’s what I want.
“That’s what I’m looking to do,” he added. “Play better, cleaner games. With our talent-level we should be in every single game that we’re in and the team that plays the cleanest, and the best and the most fundamental wins.”
Washington played the cleanest, best, most fundamentally sound game on Wednesday in Citi Field, beating New York 4-0 with 6 2⁄3 scoreless from Stephen Strasburg and 2 1⁄3 from the relief corps.
“They did a great job,” Martinez said. “Did a great job. Took the ball from Stephen and those guys got it done.”
A clean win, the manager said, was a welcome change after the first five games.
“I liked the way we played today,” he said. “We played really well. And like I said it’s a nice win all the way around and we have a day off tomorrow, we’ll come back Saturday.”