The Washington Nationals look like they have a closer problem... again.
When the team signed Brad Hand to a one-year, $10.5 million contract in January, it was the latest attempt to end the continuing search for a reliable closer that has persisted for almost ten seasons, through four division championships and a World Series title.
Hand’s hold on the closer’s job seems to have lasted all of seven weeks.
His first nine appearances of the season were everything a ballclub could ask for.
Through May 6, the left-hander had converted three saves in as many opportunities and had not allowed an earned run all season.
But starting with Saturday’s 4-3, 11-inning loss to the New York Yankees, his velocity and location have been off, and he has failed to convert a save or even hold a lead.
“We had our closer out there 3 of the last 5 games with a chance to win the game, it just hasn’t happened,“ said manager Davey Martinez after hand took the loss in Wednesday’s 5-2, 10-inning loss to the Phillies.
Saturday, he gave up one earned run on three hits in one inning, but did not factor in the decision.
But in absorbing consecutive losses Sunday against the Yankees and Wednesday against Philadelphia, Hand lasted one-third and one inning respectively, allowing four hits, four runs, three of them earned, including Odubel Herrera’s game-tying homer Wednesday.
In head-spinning fashion, Hand’s ERA has ballooned from 0.00 to 2.92 in less than a week, while the Nats have lost four straight and seven of their last 10.
Martinez didn’t blame Hand for Wednesday’s loss, but acknowledged that the team is struggling.
“We’re going to win together and we’re going to lose together. Brad Hand did not lose the game“ he said.
“We’re going through a rough time. But we’re going through a rough time as a team, not just one individual. We’re going to stay positive and we’re going to get through this.”
Hand started the ninth, ahead 2-1, by striking out Andrew Knapp, but hung an 0-1 slider to Herrera to tie the game. He worked around a hit batsman to escape the ninth with a tie.
Hand came out to start the tenth, but lost a battle with Bryce Harper when the former Nat took a 3-2 pitch to left field, sending Andrew McCutchen, who had started the half inning on second base, over to third before he scored with Kyle Finnegan on the mound.
“I wanted to bring him back to face Harper,” said Martinez. “And the ball that Harper hit, it was a pretty good pitch. I mean, it was about a foot outside, he stuck the bat out and got a base hit. But I wanted him to face Harper.”
The Nats have enough problems already without having to worry about their closer.
A team that regularly strands leadoff baserunners, a team that runs itself out of innings, a team that can’t get an get extra-base hit with a man in scoring position to save its life, can’t afford to have a closer problem.
A team that struggles to score in general will not have that many leads in the first place.
Without a reliable back end of the bullpen, it won’t keep many of them.
Teammate Kyle Finnegan thinks Hand can turn it around.
“Brad is a heck of a player, he’s going to be just fine,” said Finnegan after Wednesday’s loss.
“It’s a long season. He’s our guy down there, and we’ve got all the support in the world for him, and he’s going to carry us. He’s going to carry us quite a bit this season.”
Martinez has no plans to rest hand or give him a new role.
“Like I told Brad, ‘Hey, I’m going to keep putting you out there. You’re our guy, so keep your head up. Don’t get down. This will turn,’” said Martinez.