We got our first glimpse at the Nationals' 2016 bullpen in Monday's Opening Day win over the Braves and the results produced quite the mixed bag.
After starter Max Scherzer got through the seventh inning on 104 pitches, manager Dusty Baker turned to lefty Felipe Rivero to pitch the eighth with the game locked at 2-2. Rivero quickly flashed his trademark fastball, touching 97 miles per hour twice in a three-pitch strikeout of Gordon Beckham. But then the lefty found trouble, allowing a walk and a single before hitting Freddie Freeman in a full count with two outs to load the bases.
"He just wasn’t that sharp," Baker said of Rivero. "The pitch on Freddie was supposed to be a fastball away and it came up and in and hit him. So that showed me he was missing by a foot or so, a couple feet. So that was enough."
Looking for one out in the eighth inning, Baker called on Shawn Kelley, one of the biggest offseason acquisitions for the Nationals' bullpen. Beyond Jonathan Papelbon as their closer, Kelley has the most experience pitching in late innings of any Nats reliever.
Whether it was Opening Day jitters or not, Kelley simply couldn't find the strike zone. His first pitch barely made it past the infield grass. His last pitch skidded under Wilson Ramos and walked in a run to make it a 3-2 ballgame.
“I don’t know. He’s been in that situation many, many times," Baker said of Kelley. "He was just throwing them in the dirt. We have all these stats, [like] runners inherited that have scored. That’s the lowest on our team, and that’s why we brought him in there for that situation. But sometimes, as you see, the stats don’t follow suit.”
After Rivero and Kelley, Baker had Oliver Perez - another winter free agent signing - to get the final out of the eighth. He then summoned right-hander Blake Treinen for the ninth and Papelbon for a save situation in the 10th. Treinen walked his first batter on four pitches, but recovered nicely after a mound visit by Wilson Ramos and Daniel Murphy to notch a double play against A.J. Pierzynski and a strikeout against Gordon Beckham.
Baker has indicated he wants to see his relievers in certain situations before finalizing any bullpen roles beyond Papelbon in the ninth. He wants to see guys with runners on and with leads to protect to learn who he can trust and when. Baker is in his first year managing a new team and is still getting to know his players.
The decisions made by Baker from the eighth inning on in Monday's win, though, gave insight into how he sees his relievers' roles at this point. Their performances in those spots, on the other hand, didn't seem to help solidify much of anything.
The Nationals' bullpen was a major problem in 2015 and they were aggressive in upgrading that unit this winter. After spring training and one game of the regular season, though, it remains a work in progress.