WASHINGTON — An interesting move happened pregame Friday: Kyle Barraclough, struggling reliever trying to get right in the minors, was brought back to the major leagues. Andrew Stevenson was sent back to the minors to make space.
And, curious thing later Friday. Barraclough entered with the outcome in the balance. Two runners on base, Justin Turner at the plate, a crisp, engaging game between quality teams tied 1-1.
Turner hit a three-run homer.
Again Friday, the state of the Nationals’ bullpen was exposed. Barraclough was back up and in the game because other bullpen members needed rest. But, he was also in the minor leagues because of his prior failings after being signed in the offseason to primarily handle the seventh inning. His ERA is a bedeviling 6.66. The work of the would-be setup men in the Nationals’ bullpen -- Barraclough and Trevor Rosenthal -- has been an abject failure.
Barraclough pitched his way to a 2.70 ERA with Double-A Harrisburg after coming off the injured list. His velocity, which had dipped before he went on the 10-day injured list June 16 because of right radial nerve irritation, had returned. It spiked Friday when he entered the game to face Turner for the fourth time in his career. First pitch: 96 mph. Barraclough was hyped. His fastball averaged 93.4 mph this season. Next was a 94-mph fastball. Then, back up to 96 mph, but a ball, 2-1 count. A fourth fastball missed. Now, Turner is in a 3-1 count, he’s seen only fastballs up in the zone, and Barraclough is leveraged. Damage followed after a fifth fastball was well on the plate, up and a bit in, where Turner enjoys pitches.
“A lot of adrenaline,” Barraclough said of his night. “Something I haven't been used to for the last couple weeks [in the minor leagues]. Obviously the velo was up a little bit. Came in and saw that and been down there working really hard trying to get that back and back where it needs to be and then, it's just a matter of executing pitches. Miss up and in to a guy that likes the ball up there and obviously after the first couple pitches that I threw up there, he's just looking for it so I just got to execute better.”
The question moving forward is what to do with Barraclough. The Nationals have sent him down, luckily having options on someone they thought would be a vital part of the bullpen. They gave him time to rest, rebuild and come back. But, it hasn’t worked. Short spells of success have been framed by multiple failings. Both his FIP and WHIP suggest his ERA is an accurate reflection of his actual work from the mound. So, what to do with him?
“I think at this point it’s a confidence issue,” Davey Martinez said. “He threw the ball by Turner at 96. And then all of a sudden he threw one to the backstop. I could see a little bit of hesitation. And then all of a sudden he couldn’t locate his fastball. That last pitch was up, but it was right down the middle. He’s just got to get confidence. He’s got to come back with confidence. Cause his velo was good. I thought he might throw a slider or two, but he stuck with the fastball. Just couldn’t get ahead.”
Why didn’t he throw a slider at all, a pitch he has been successful with in the past and is crucial to him getting outs.
“That might be something to look at because I’ve been working really hard down there getting my breaking ball back to being what it was a couple years ago and I've been really happy with the adjustments I’ve made and how it's been working down there,” Barraclough said. “It's just a matter of getting it up here with a different ball trying to get it to do all the things that it’s doing down there. Obviously the first part of that is throwing it. That's something that talking with [Kurt Suzuki] and Yan [Gomes] about moving forward; maybe mixing up the pitches a little more so those guys can’t just sit dead red.”
All of this checks a variety of boxes. The manager thinks his reliever has low confidence. The reliever thinks his pitch execution and selection was poor. The bottom line is this is not working, and has not since the season began.
Washington also has little choice but to ride it out at least until July 31. If it finds bullpen help before the trade deadline, multiple changes can be made, and Barraclough may not last past them despite being inexpensive with future team control.
“I mean you just try and keep moving forward,” Barraclough said.
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