The day after a May 12th appearance against the Philadelphia Phillies in which Sam Clay got out of a 2-on, 2-out jam by retiring Bryce Harper on a groundout to second, Davey Martinez talked on a Zoom call with reporters about the Washington Nationals’ reliever, and what the 27-year-old is adding to the bullpen mix in his first year in the organization after he signed a big league deal with the club this winter.
“He’s awesome,” Martinez said, and, apparently, also unflappable.
“You don’t get any reaction from him. It’s hard to — I remember one day I got a smile out of him, I thought that was great. I told him, ‘You made my day today just by you smiling.’ He just kind of takes it — but he’s enjoying everything. He talked to [Pitching Coach Jim Hickey] before the series, and Hickey says, “Hey, you’re going to have a big moment, you’re going to face a pretty good hitter I’m sure in these three days.’ He came up with a big moment, and a big out yesterday against [Harper] and he did a great job.
“He’s one of those kids who never seems to get rattled about anything,” Martinez added.
“And when you talk to him he’s always ready to go, ready to pitch. He’s been great to have around, he fits in the bullpen.
“They call him the quiet one out there, but he’s always intuitive, he talks to [Bullpen Coach] Henry [Blanco] a lot about how to pitch guys, but he’s been great.”
Clay, a 2014 4th Round pick by Minnesota, spent six years in the Twins’ minor league system and spent the 2020 campaign as part of their 60-Man player pool, but never did get the call up to the majors. He acknowledged this winter, after signing with the Nationals, that he was surprised he got a major league deal.
His reaction to the news?
“It was disbelief, honestly,” Clay said this past November. “It was not something I expected.
“My agent had hinted at it and suggested that maybe it could happen, but no, I was [shocked].
“I didn’t know what to say. I was speechless, honestly. It was just an incredible feeling.”
The southpaw has made the most of the opportunities he’s received this season, putting up a 2.70 ERA, a 3.97 FIP, five walks, 10 Ks, and a .245/.322/.321 line against in 16 games and 13 1⁄3 IP going into last night’s game.
Clay has been effective on the mound, but is still quiet in the Nats’ clubhouse, and Martinez talked again last week about trying to draw him out a little.
“We’re trying to get some personality out of Sam Clay, that’s for sure,” the manager joked.
“I got him to smile a couple times ... but he’s pretty much ‘Steady Eddie’, he’s just one of those guys. I know the bullpen guys are trying to get him to loosen up a little bit, but it’s been tough, but he’s such a good kid.”
The fact that he is relatively quiet is not a surprise to the Nationals, however. They did their due diligence when they started thinking about signing him this past winter.
“We knew that he was a quiet kid,” Martinez said before the series opener with Cincinnati in the nation’s capital last night.
“We had him all Spring Training ... and just having conversations with him, it was very short and quick, but as I got to know him, his personality is what it is. Great kid. Super kid. And in his own way, very competitive.
“But yet, like I said, it’s hard to bring that smile out of him. The one time I did get him to smile, I thought I did a pretty good job of getting him to smile.”
If that’s the only knock on Clay, the Nationals will surely accept him not smiling much, and just getting the job done on the mound. Martinez said he is locked in and determined.
“He’s always in tune, he’s ready, he always wants to pitch. He’s a good teammate. I talk to Henry [Blanco] a lot about him, about how he is in the bullpen, and he said he’s very in-tune with what’s going on, he’s always asking questions, which is awesome for a young guy like him that’s out there in the bullpen that has to pitch in big situations for us.
“We knew what we were going to get when we got him. We always do our due diligence with these guys, and he’s a guy that we thought would fit in with our club and our personality here as well. So love him. Like I said, I know what I’m going to get from him every time he steps out and he’s been great.”
Clay was the second long-time minor leaguer signed to a major league deal that has made an impact out of the Nationals’ bullpen, with Kyle Finnegan a member of the Oakland Athletics’ system for seven seasons before he signed a major league deal with Washington and finally debuted in the majors in 2020’s 60-game campaign.
Finding two relievers who didn’t get opportunities with their original employers, who are up in the majors now and contributing, is really a success story for the scouting department in D.C.
“It’s wonderful that we can have these guys go out there and scouting these guys, and feel like — we always talk about the kind of guys that we want, personality-wise, stuff-wise,” the fourth-year manager said, “... whatever it may be, and these guys go out there and do their homework and do their due diligence on some of these guys, and when you’re able to get a guy like Finnegan and Clay, and get them here and have them do the things that they’re doing, it’s awesome. And it’s a testament to our scouting department, our organization, because we’re all in this together and we all have these conversations about what we look for and what we want, and their jobs are to go out there and try to find these guys, and they found two pretty good ones, pretty special ones in Finnegan and Clay.”
Clay made his 17th appearance of the season in the ninth inning last night, with the Reds up 2-0, and the lefty gave up a leadoff single and walk, putting the first two runners on before a 6-4-3 double play and swinging K got him out of a 24-pitch, 13-strike frame.
“He’s got good stuff, man, he’s tough to square up,” Nats’ shortstop Trea Turner said after a 2-1 loss to the Reds. “I feel like he gets a lot of weird swings and misses, a lot of weird foul balls. He’s really funky, and any time he can get that ground ball double play, so when runners are on I don’t necessarily worry with him because he can get that double play very easily.
“He’s just got to stay in the strike zone, and he was a little erratic tonight, but then sure enough figured it out and got a nice ground ball and a good strikeout right there, so he’s got the stuff to keep us in ballgames and pitch good innings for us, big innings for us, and that was a big inning, because like I said, he gave us a chance to win that game late.”
“He’s very poised,” Martinez said, “he doesn’t get rattled and you can see that, and he knows who he is. He’s a guy that throws a lot of ground balls, he can strike a lefty out.
“You saw that today, I mean, he gave up an infield hit, unfortunate, and then he settled down a little bit and got the big double play and then the strikeout.”