Spring Training 2021: Nats bullpen and how Martinez is handling it

The sign of a good bullpen is that it’s rarely brought up in conversation. And when it is, it’s rarely in reaction to what happened in last night’s game but why the team is playing well.

But a leaky pen causes stains on a season and a bad relief corps gives one regular indigestion.

The Nationals pitching rotation is looking to rebound from a subpar and injury-riddled 2020, and a bullpen that holds late leads can put less pressure on the arms of Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin.



Manager Davey Martinez likes what he has to work with in 2021.

“With all of these different options it’s nice. It’s going to be good on the days that Brad Hand can’t close the game that we have a Huddy (Daniel Hudson), we have a Will Harris, we have a (Tanner) Rainey. Those guys are all to me bona fide back-end guys, so that will be nice.”

Martinez came under a little scrutiny in his first season for mishandling his relief corps. And that was when they had an ERA of 4.05 (15th best in MLB) with 14 blown saves in 54 chances.

The World Championship season saw the Nats’ bullpen own the second worst ERA (5.68) in the big leagues, while blowing 29 saves.

We remember the October magic, but some still recall late-inning meltdowns against the Mets in a May sweep, as well as a Memorial Day implosion that wasted a stellar Max Scherzer start.

But bullpen ERA actually improved by one whole run in 2020 and the manager is much more adept at pressing the right buttons.

“Things always work out,” Martinez said, “And I’ve learned a lot about how to use these guys, especially guys that have been around.”

The Nats bolstered their bullpen in the offseason by signing Cleveland closer Brad Hand to a one-year contract worth $10.5 million.

The 30-year-old led the American League with 16 saves in 2020 after posting a career-high 34 saves the season before.

He joins a mix of veterans who are familiar with high-leverage situations, from Daniel Hudson (10 saves in 2020) to Will Harris (1.50 ERA over 68 games with Houston in 2019).

“What I like this year is our depth in our bullpen,” Martinez said. “And the guys that can pitch on the back-end of our bullpen. We’ve got a lot options. And that’s always been the key — how to use these guys and when to give them days off.”

Because there’s often a fine line between too little rest and too much rust. And unlike when he came on board in 2018, Martinez has a history with most of his current relievers. He’s seen them in the clubhouse after appearances and knows what to look for when figuring out if they’re slightly fatigued or overworked.

“You wish you could throw these guys six out of seven days, but that’s not the thing anymore,” Martinez said.

“These guys need days off whether they pitch two days in a row, some guys can pitch three days in a row. Which guy can get four or five outs? Which guy can only pitch every other day and be successful? That’s something I’ve learned over the years.”

In addition to the three H’s (Hand, Hudson and Harris has the feel of a Law Firm) there are other options.

Tanner Rainey posted a 2.66 ERA in 20.1 innings over 20 appearances last year after appearing in 52 games in his rookie season. Martinez likes how the 27-year-old has progressed.

“I think he’s got the makeup to be a closer and a back-end guy,” Martinez said. “He’s a younger guy, so we’re going to take it slow with him. I still believe that when he’s ready, he’s going to help us out in the back-end and close some games for us.”

Also back are Kyle Finnegan (a team-high 25 appearances in 2020), Ryne Harper (23 appearances) and Wander Suero (22).

The Nats’ final signing as training camp got underway was the addition of veteran right-hander Jeremy Jeffress.

The 2018 All Star posted a 1.54 ERA and 8 saves for the Chicago Cubs last season while arriving in great shape.

“He’s ready. The first time I saw him throw, he threw the ball really well,” Martinez said. “I asked him, ‘Have you been throwing?’ and he goes ‘Yeah, religiously.’ He looks great — the ball is coming out really nice. A couple more live BP’s, and then we’ll get him in a game.”

Kyle McGowin
Washington Nationals relief pitcher Kyle McGowin (61) throws during a spring training baseball game against the Miami Marlins, Wednesday, March 3, 2021, in West Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Washington Nationals’ Josh Bell, right, is met by Kyle Schwarber (12) after scoring on a solo home run during the fourth inning of a spring training baseball game against the Miami Marlins, Wednesday, March 3, 2021, in West Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Washington Nationals’ Josh Bell (19) tosses his bat after hitting a solo home run during the fourth inning of a spring training baseball game against the Miami Marlins, Wednesday, March 3, 2021, in West Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Washington Nationals' Tres Barrera (38) is out at second as Miami Marlins second baseman Isan Diaz throws to first for a double play during the third inning of a spring training baseball game, Wednesday, March 3, 2021, in West Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Washington Nationals’ Tres Barrera (38) is out at second as Miami Marlins second baseman Isan Diaz throws to first for a double play during the third inning of a spring training baseball game, Wednesday, March 3, 2021, in West Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Washington Nationals starting pitcher Erick Fedde (23) throws during the first inning of a spring training baseball game against the Miami Marlins, Wednesday, March 3, 2021, in West Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Washington Nationals’ Kyle Schwarber, right, is congratulated in the dugout after hitting a solo home run during the second inning of a spring training baseball game against the Miami Marlins, Wednesday, March 3, 2021, in West Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Trea Turner
Washington Nationals’ Trea Turner hits a double during the first inning of a spring training baseball game against the Miami Marlins, Wednesday, March 3, 2021, in West Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

The baseball diamond at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches in West Palm Beach, Florida, on March 1 just before the Nationals faced off against the Houston Astros.

The view from the Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium in Jupiter, Florida, is seen on Feb. 28 as the Nationals faced off against the St. Louis Cardinals. (WTOP/Dave Preston)

The view from the Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium in Jupiter, Florida, Feb. 28 is seen as the Nationals faced off against the Cardinals. (WTOP/Dave Preston)

The view from the Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium in Jupiter, Florida, on Feb. 28 is seen as the Nationals faced off against the St. Louis Cardinals. (WTOP/Dave Preston)

WTOP’s Dave Preston is soaking up the sun and fun during spring training 2021. (WTOP/Dave Preston)

Fans sit in socially distant pods as they watch a spring training baseball game between the Washington Nationals and St. Louis Cardinals Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021, in Jupiter, Fla. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Fans head for Roger Dean Stadium before the start of a spring training baseball game between the Washington Nationals and St. Louis Cardinals Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021, in Jupiter, Fla. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Washington Nationals’ Kyle Schwarber smiles as he leaves a spring training baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals during the fifth inning Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021, in Jupiter, Fla. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Washington Nationals shortstop Trea Turner takes up his position during the third inning of a spring training baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021, in Jupiter, Fla. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Washington Nationals’ Luis Garcia (2) grounds out during the fifth inning of a spring training baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021, in Jupiter, Fla. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Washington Nationals’ Josh Bell bats during the fifth inning of a spring training baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021, in Jupiter, Fla. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Washington Nationals’ Victor Robles heads back to the dugout after striking out during the fourth inning of a spring training baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021, in Jupiter, Fla. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Washington Nationals catcher Yan Gomes carries his gear to the clubhouse at the end of spring training baseball practice Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021, in West Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Washington Nationals’ Juan Soto walks to the clubhouse at the end of spring training baseball practice Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021, in West Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Washington Nationals pitchers Seth Romero (56), Cade Cavalli (78), Jackson Rutledge (79) and Cole Henry (71) head out for spring training baseball practice Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021, in West Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

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Kyle McGowin
Washington Nationals' Tres Barrera (38) is out at second as Miami Marlins second baseman Isan Diaz throws to first for a double play during the third inning of a spring training baseball game, Wednesday, March 3, 2021, in West Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Trea Turner
Dave Preston

Dave has been in the D.C. area for 10 years and in addition to working at WTOP since 2002 has also been on the air at Westwood One/CBS Radio as well as Red Zebra Broadcasting (Redskins Network).

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