WASHINGTON - In early May of last year, Paul Menhart got on a plane in Georgia and flew to Philadelphia to begin his stint as the pitching coach of the Nationals.
This week he will make another trip north to reach a less-noted milestone – his 162nd game in the dugout in that role under Davey Martinez. Of course, 162 games is the normal length of a regular-season in the majors – but this year has not been close to normal.
“I am floored about that; that is a neat little stat,” Menhart told Federal Baseball this week about reaching 162 games. “I am hoping to do this as long as they let me.”
Menhart missed the first 30 games of last season while working as a pitching coordinator in player development. That meant trips to minor-league towns such as Woodbridge, Virginia, Hagerstown, Maryland, and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to check in on young pitchers.
The 30th game of this season for Washington is slated for Friday night in Boston.
Menhart took over in Game 31 last year after former pitching coach Derek Lilliquist was let go in early May after a game in D.C. against the Cardinals.
The Nationals were 13-17 before Menhart came on board last season. Washington ended up 93-69 – and, of course, played 17 more games in postseason play.
Coincidentally, Menhart was born in St. Louis and went to Cardinals’ games as a boy with his father. Lilliquist was the pitching coach for the Cardinals before he came to Washington.
And Menhart has ties to New England as well.
His family moved from St. Louis to Connecticut, where he became a high school standout.
If fans were allowed at Fenway Park on Jackie Robinson Day this Friday, Menhart would have had plenty of friends in attendance.
“I would’ve left quite a few tickets,” said Menhart, who noted the Nationals are slated to play in Boston in 2021.
Back at Nationals Park, Menhart has his own cheering section: cardboard cutouts of his wife, three children, and future son-in-law are a few rows back of the Nationals’ dugout on the first-base side.
The communication style of Menhart – who can be self-deprecating and humorous – was seen as a plus when he took over last season after several years as a coach and instructor in the minors.
That may be because he was not a great pitcher in his three years in the majors.
He pitched in 1995 for Toronto and one of the Jays’ catchers that year was Randy Knorr, a former Nationals’ coach who is now the Triple-A Fresno manager.
Menhart then played for Seattle in 1996 – a juggernaut that included future Hall of Famers Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez, and Ken Griffey, Jr. In his final year in the majors, Menhart was part of a San Diego team in 1997 that was managed by Bruce Bochy and featured Rickey Henderson, Tony Gwynn and Trevor Hoffman.
While Menhart pitched in just 41 games and posted a 5.47 ERA, he learned a lot from his managers and coaches.
“The fact that he listens as well,” said Martinez, when asked what makes Menhart a good communicator. “He is willing to listen. He takes everything in before he starts to help.”
“I know for a fact it works,” reliever Javy Guerra said late last season about the style of Menhart. “He gives me something I can use right away.”
While Menhart helped the Nats win the World Series last year, this season has been a challenge for everyone involved at the Major League level during the pandemic.
The task for Menhart got more challenging earlier this month when World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg went on the Injured List with carpal tunnel neuritis in his right hand. He is expected to miss the rest of the season.
“I feel awful of losing Stephen. We could go on and on about how great he is,” Menhart said.
The absence of the veteran right-hander has created urgency for the likes of Austin Voth and Erick Fedde. Both top draft picks, Voth started and took the loss Monday at home with the Marlins while Fedde started on Tuesday against the Phillies and gave up four runs in the third at Nationals Park before rain came as Fedde was ready to pitch the top of the sixth.
“It just did not go his way,” Menhart said of Voth, who doesn’t have a win this season and has not lasted more than five innings in any of his starts.
“There were too many deep counts; he was not commanding the baseball as well as he has done in the past.”
There is still time for Voth and other younger pitchers to step up. “I think this is an exciting time for some of our young guys to show if they belong,” Menhart said. “You don’t get these opportunities very often. It is going to be fun to watch who takes advantage of it.”
Among the pitchers who have made their MLB debut this month are Seth Romero and Dakota Bacus. Romero went on the Injured List on Monday with a broken right (non-pitching) hand after he fell down some steps. He gave up four runs in his first outing at the Mets then wasn’t scored upon in his next two games out of the bullpen.
“The initial debut is always a little nerve-wracking. You need to give guys a pass on the first one or two maybe,” Menhart said of Romero.
“After that, all I would say is comfortable (outings). He has the stuff to be here, no doubt. It is unfortunate he has another bump in his journey.”
One reliever who has been impressive is Tanner Rainey, who got postseason experience in 2019. “That has made him more comfortable out on the mound, in any situation,” Menhart said of Rainey, with an 0.75 ERA in his first 12 appearances.
Menhart and the Nationals will continue to rely on veteran starters Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin, and Anibal Sanchez.
“I have also said in the past I have numerous assistant coaches,” Menhart said. “Another set of eyes to help guide these kids.”
The Nationals enter the final weeks of the season without contracts for next season for Martinez and general manager Mike Rizzo.
“I don’t think it affects our day-to-day (jobs). We would all like for Davey and Rizzo to get those (contracts) behind them so we can move on,” Menhart said. “Does it come up a lot? Not necessarily. It is human nature to be concerned about your future.”