Justin Miller stuck up for bullpen mate Trevor Rosenthal after the veteran reliever (in his first season back following Tommy John in 2017) struggled and gave up runs in a third outing in a row earlier this week in which he failed to retire a single batter.
“The dude took 16 months off from pitching in a big league ballgame,” Miller told reporters in the nation’s capital.
“He’s out there trying to do his job,” Miller continued. “It’s not like he’s out there trying to walk guys left and right. The guy’s out there battling his butt off and we’re all pulling for him, and you see he’s got a big arm, so I mean things will settle down. He’s a proven vet, and so things will turn around.”
Rosenthal’s struggles forced second-year skipper Davey Martinez to make some changes to the plan the Washington Nationals came into the season with, which included Rosenthal as their set-up man for Sean Doolittle in the eighth inning.
Miller, who was off to a good start (with 3 2⁄3 scoreless innings) while the rest of the relief corps struggled over the first games of the season, got the ball in the eighth on Saturday afternoon with a 5-3 lead over the New York Mets in Citi Field, and promptly surrendered back-to-back home runs on a 2-1 slider over the middle of the plate to Pete Alonso and a center-cut 3-2 fastball inside to Robinson Canó that both went out to center as the home team tied it up and eventually took the lead with lefty Tony Sipp on the mound.
“Miller has been pitching well,” Davey Martinez said after a 6-5 loss in New York. “He left two balls out over the plate and to two pretty good hitters right now so, what can you do, we’ve got to come back tomorrow and try to win the series.”
It’s too early for narratives to really take hold, but the early returns on the bullpen arms that the Nationals have assembled in the majors aren’t promising, and they really need things to turn around quickly.
Coming in, the Nats thought they had the back end of the bullpen set up nicely, but seven games later it’s looking like a problem.
“It’s tough, but like I said, I trust these guys, and the other day they came in and did the job,” Martinez said.
“Today they didn’t. It’s a grind. We’ve got to keep grinding and I’ve got to continue to put these guys into situations and they’re going to have big moments and they’re going to get big outs.”
Martinez was asked about the decision to go with Miller again, for the third outing in four days, after he threw 41 pitches in the previous two, but the manager said his right-hander was good to go.
“Yeah, we had a day off. He was good to go. Just like I said, he threw two balls out over the plate, fell behind on Canó, 3-2, and he’s a good hitter, and like I said we have to get after it tomorrow again and try to win the series.”
Miller gave up a single in the next at bat, but got a double play for the first two outs of the Mets’ eighth, at which point Martinez went to Tony Sipp, who surrendered a double to left by Michael Conforto, hit Jeff McNeil with a two-strike pitch, and gave up a go-ahead single on a 2-2 splitter up and in to Keon Broxton, 6-5.
“For my part, just didn’t have my best stuff,” Sipp said after allowing runs in the third of five outings with the Nationals so far. “Didn’t put guys away when I was ahead, and just got to make better pitches. Especially 1-2, hit a guy, and then had Broxton one strike away and hung a pitch, and that was basically just the gist of the outing, got close but didn’t have the put-away pitch.”
As for how the relief corps as a whole is handling the early-season struggles, Sipp said they were just sticking together and working to get by the issues.
“Psychologically, we keep it game-to-game,” he explained.
“We can’t carry over the same thing that we’ve done in previous games to the next, but we are family out there. We all pull for each other and feel for each other. We’re probably around each other a lot of times during the season more than we are around our own family, so it is a family and it gets frustrating and we just have to pull together and figure it out.”
“We have confidence in our team,” Patrick Corbin said after giving up three runs on three solo home runs in his six innings of work on the mound against the Mets.
“I think things are going to turn around. Guys are in here working hard every day, trying to get better and we’ve had some close games, and just some haven’t gone our way, but it’s still early, there’s a long season left, I mean they brought in these guys for a reason, they all have a proven track record and have done well, maybe for some it just takes a little bit of time, but they’re in here every day working hard, trying to get better and we still believe in everybody that’s here and we’re excited moving forward with the team that we have.”
“It’s high-leverage situations,” Martinez added. “We’ve got to figure out that eighth inning, guys have got to come in and throw strikes and get hitters out. That’s the bottom line. You put them in positions where you think they’re going to succeed and they’ve got to come in and do the job.”
The Nationals have now given up 17 of the 40 runs they’ve allowed overall in the eighth innings of their first seven games of the season.