It would have been hard to blame Shawn Kelley on Monday night if he thought his work against the Chicago Cubs was done after he registered a pair of eighth-inning strikeouts against David Ross and Addison Russell. After all, the Nationals were leading 4-1, and if the score held into the ninth, that usually means that it's time to summon Jonathan Papelbon from the bullpen.
That's the typical routine, anyway. But on this night, Papelbon was sitting inside the Nats dugout, taking the day off with an unknown injury. So with a three-run cushion, Dusty Baker sent the 32-year-old reliever back to the mound with a shot to finish the game off and earn his first save since 2014.
"I get the outs he tells me to," he said. "I felt good. He asked me how I felt and I said I felt good. He said 'you're going back out.'"
Kelley made Baker look smart; he the job done by sandwiching strikeouts of Albert Amora and Jason Heyward with a nifty play at first base after fielding a high throw from Ryan Zimmerman, who dove to stop a sharp ground ball from the speedy Dexter Fowler.
"That was an athletic play," the Nats' manager said. "It was a great play by Zim and a great, tough play for a pitcher. He was on the move and the throw was high and he still had the presence of mind to touch the bag....that's a very big play when your pitchers are capable of fielding their positions.
In total, Kelley struck out four of the five hitters he faced, mixing in his slider with a fastball that touched 95 mph — a few ticks up from his average velocity of 91.9.
"With a three-run lead, I just wanted to get ahead," he said. "I didn't want to do them any favors or fall behind, then have to battle from behind to get this lineup out in hitters' counts. Just try to throw strike one and go from there."
Kelley is no stranger to role changes. Between stints with the Seattle Mariners, New York Yankees and San Diego Padres, he's seen action in middle relief, as a setup man, and has been called upon to get the last three outs of a close game. So as a bullpen arm for his entire major league career, nights like Monday aren't anything new, even if he's pitching in a different spot than he's normally accustomed to.
"Honestly, when I'm out there it's the hitter that's in the box," he said. "I'm a high-intensity guy. I'm competitive and I want to get them out. Whatever it takes. Strikeout, pop-up, lineout or rob a home run; I don't care. I just want to get them out."
"He has had experience in those situations, and given the situation with his ups and downs, just like anybody else, this obviously is a great save for him," Wilson Ramos said through an interpreter.
Monday's effort dropped Kelley's season ERA down to 2.70 and earned him his fifth career save. But more importantly, it closed out the Nats' first win of the season over the club many believe to be baseball's best in 2016.
"It's still June, but I'd be lying if I said it's not a big series," Kelley said. "We want to let them know that we're not just going to roll over after they beat us up at their place. I would say it's a good start to the series for us."