Brad Hand saw how things were lining up, they’d discussed it beforehand, so as the club took a 3-1 lead in the bottom of the seventh in Wednesday afternoon’s series finale in the nation’s capital, the Washington Nationals’ closer prepared for a 5-out save opportunity against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Did he approach it any differently than he would if it was just three outs?
“I mean, I’m not approaching it different,” the 31-year-old reliever said. “I knew that there was a possibility, I knew who was coming up in the eighth, I knew [Gregory] Polanco was up 4th, so going into the eighth inning I was expecting the phone call, so with the day off tomorrow, I didn’t pitch yesterday, so I was expecting to get up right there with Polanco coming up fourth.”
Hand got the left-handed swinging Polanco to chase a 1-2 fastball outside, then popped Phillip Evans up with an 0-2 fastball to get the first two outs on seven pitches, and in the ninth he worked around back-to-back, two-out singles to record the save and wrap up a three-game sweep of the Pirates.
Hand threw 22 pitches, 16 for strikes, in a fairly efficient 1 2⁄3 IP, which the manager said he was comfortable with considering the reliever, as he noted, didn’t pitch the previous night and would get a day off.
“Knowing that we have a day off tomorrow, that was the whole plan before the game that we could possibly do that in the eighth inning with him,” Martinez said.
After a rough, six-game stretch in May which saw the 11-year veteran give up 10 hits, three walks, and nine runs, seven earned, in six games and 5 1⁄3 IP (11.81 ERA, .385/.467/.769 line against), Hand has sorted it out, and Nationals’ closer is currently in a stretch of 10-straight save opportunities converted, with a 1.50 ERA and .171/.255/.220 line against in his last 11 games and 12 IP. What’s been different for Hand since he turned it around?
“I feel like my stuff has been the same over the course of the whole year,” Hand said after the outing on Wednesday. “I had a few outings where I kind of got myself in some trouble with some walks, but other than that, the stuff has been there, just the results maybe at times haven’t been there, but the stuff feels good right now.”
“I felt like my stuff was good during that stretch,” he added, “I just wasn’t seeing results and I got myself in trouble, I was falling behind in counts, walking guys. No different stuff, it was just the falling behind and putting yourself in bad counts or putting guys on base when there was no need to and stuff like that, but I felt like my stuff has been right there all year.”
Hand’s velocity is up too, a focus for him this winter after it dropped on him in 2020’s 60-game campaign. He averaged 91.4 MPH with his four-seamer last season and 91.5 with his sinker, and they’re up to 92.9 and 92.8, respectively, this season.
“The big talk all offseason was my velo was declining last year,” Hand said, “so, I worked on that this offseason, so it’s good to see some of those numbers creep back up.”
The Nationals winning more in recent weeks has also allowed Hand to get on the mound, and the more he works the sharper he gets, something he figured out after transitioning from the rotation to the bullpen in 2016.
“I don’t necessarily know why,” he said, “maybe it comes down to being a starter back in the day, I didn’t have much success as a starter, because those four days off I just wanted to get back out there. So, I felt like when I got into the bullpen role, just pitching every day, I felt like my stuff was sharper and more consistent, it’s just been one of those things, as long as I’m feeling well, I always want to be out there. So, just keeps me more consistent and more in a groove.”
Hand is in a groove. The club has won four straight. Now they play four with the current NL East division leading New York Mets, in what the closer acknowledged is an important and challenging series.
“I think for us right now every series is important,” Hand said. “We’re trailing in the division, so I don’t think we can take any series lightly, but if we’re playing the first place team in our division, it’s definitely nice to beat up on them, that’s the way you make up ground quick, so I think everybody — you don’t talk about it, but everybody knows it, the Mets are coming to town, it’s really like the first time we’ve played them in quite some time.
“We got the off day tomorrow, everybody is going to be recharged, and then we’ll be ready to go.”