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Rosenthal’s signing gives Nationals elite 1-2 punch in bullpen

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USA Today Sports

Rosenthal’s signing gives Nationals elite 1-2 punch in bullpen

The light of these things comes from being at home when ordinarily not. Trevor Rosenthal was around for the mid-summer birth of his third child, catching all the firsts that can elude a new father when the baseball season is underway. He spent more time with his wife, Lindsey, and coached T-ball. Trainer visits, work with college kids, a slew of things other than flying from city to city and running to the mound with “300 Violin Orchestra” thumping in a stadium filled his time.

Rosenthal’s unexpected availability was tied to his rehabilitation process following Tommy John surgery in 2017 to repair his right ulnar collateral ligament. It tore after a he sent a 98-mph fastball to Freddie Freeman Aug. 12, 2017. Surgery and a release by the St. Louis Cardinals followed. As did 12 months of rehab, much of it spent on the red mound up the right field line at Maryville University in the St. Louis suburbs.

In between family time and rehab protocols, Rosenthal watched baseball. His arm felt so well after the All-Star break he began to wonder if he could pitch in the majors in 2018. Instead, he fought that notion, then later the angst that comes with watching the postseason on a couch, staying within the physical therapist-recommended process and targeting an October workout to reveal his 99-mph fastball was back.

The Nationals watched his 35-pitch workout Oct. 3 at UC Irvine. That was enough. Rosenthal and the Nationals agreed to terms Saturday on a one-year, incentive-filled deal worth at least $6 million the first year. A $14 million 2020 club option vests if Rosenthal appears in 50 or more games or finishes 30 or more. The cash pops him into a bullpen that needs a second dominant, late-inning reliever to work in front of closer Sean Doolittle. Together, if healthy, they form one of the more potent late inning duos in baseball.

“Obviously I think the plan is just being in high-leverage situations and hopefully as a team we're winning a lot of games and we have those opportunities to get on the mound,” Rosenthal said on a conference call Monday. “For me, it's not something where I need to know what exactly my role is going to be. It's something that I'm used to in the past. I've done it both ways where I just go in and I'm just going to take care of business and do my best and everything shakes out the way it should and we win a lot of games.”

Health is always the if. The Nationals believe they have existing framework to aid any pitcher who received Tommy John surgery. The process does not scare them. Still, they need Rosenthal to be the strikeout force he was prior to surgery, ideally with a corralled walk rate, in order to receive the proper dividend on their investment. They also need Doolittle, who has made more than 60 appearances just twice in his seven MLB seasons, to be at maximum availability. There’s risk in assuming both occur.

Should they, Rosenthal and Doolittle present an elite, fastball-reliant combination. Rosenthal’s Z-contact percentage — the percentage of the time a batter made contact against him on a pitch in the strike zone —was 72.7 in 2017. Doolittle’s was a flat 75. That’s optimum Kenley Jansen territory and creeping toward Josh Hader’s (68.7) dominance.

Backing the Z-contact number are two others: pull percentage and hard contact allowed. Again, Rosenthal and Doolittle shine in these categories that show they are not just getting outs, but overpowering hitters, primarily with one pitch type.

Rosenthal’s career pull percentage against is 32. His hard-hit percentage in 2017 was 26, in line with the 26.8 of his career. Doolittle ran at 33.7 and 29.5, respectively, during his 2018 All-Star season. When Jansen stormed through the National League in 2017, he did so with a 34.5 pull percentage and 25.9 hard-hit percentage. His decline this season showed in bumps in both: 43.1 and 33.0, respectively. Simply, Doolittle and Rosenthal dominate with explosive fastballs that trouble hitters even when well inside the strike zone. Contact is rare and often meager.

Yet, each continue to hunt for a secondary pitch. The type almost doesn’t matter. Call it the seed of doubt. Doolittle spent much of spring training in 2018 trying to hone a slider. He maneuvered his thumb to change his grip, threw it in counts he ordinarily would not, tested it on back fields and game mounds alike. The tinkering had little relevance during the season. Doolittle reduced his slider usage for the third consecutive season.

Rosenthal, 28, is hunting for something to play off his 98-mph fastball. He deployed a curveball until 2017, finally shelving that under the watch of then-St. Louis pitching coach Derek Lilliquist, who he will work with again in Washington. He increased his slider usage once the curveball was discontinued. Rosenthal looked further into his breaking pitches during the latter parts of his year-long recovery process from surgery. He learned more about how spin rate and tilt relate to his release point. The curveball, he thinks, remains out. A breaking pitch, of some ilk, is in.

“I’m hoping over those few weeks I did that, [and] the weeks to come leading to spring training, I can dial in on that a little bit more and hopefully understand it and make some adjustments and get more of a true breaking ball, whether it’s a slider, cutter or curveball, something that I fully understand what it’s doing and able to repeat it consistently,” Rosenthal said.

Rosenthal will find a reconstructed Nationals bullpen -- an annual event -- when he arrives in West Palm Beach, Fla., for spring training. The Nationals flipped aside international slot money to trade for hard-throwing but erratic Kyle Barraclough early in the offseason. Expect him to work in the middle innings. Justin Miller could be back. Matt Grace will return. Multiple young arms, led by Wander Suero, are again in the mix.

This time, the team is at least working top down. Doolittle is the closer. Rosenthal, healed and anxious, is being paid to setup or close on Doolittle’s days off. He can’t express enough how well the surgery and recovery went. Video from the Maryville mound shows his pop his back. The California workout was enough to earn him an immediate contract. What remains is the actual season.

 

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The Nationals bullpen no one expected -- or probably wanted -- is here

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The Nationals bullpen no one expected -- or probably wanted -- is here

Fernando Rodney shot off an imaginary arrow June 25, 2019, in a Nationals uniform while on the infield in Miami. He had just finished the ninth inning of a game Max Scherzer dominated. Hop in a time machine, go back to the offseason, say those words over and secure your head so it does not explode.

The current eight living in Washington’s woebegone bullpen includes half of the season’s Opening Day bullpen. Closer Sean Doolittle, Matt Grace, Wander Suero, and specialist Tony Sipp are the only ones to make it from late March to late June. None have an ERA below 3.00. One (Doolittle) has an ERA below 4.00. In normal circumstances, Grace, Suero, and Sipp would not have made it this far.

But this is not a normal bullpen year for almost anyone in baseball. It’s not even normal for a Washington organization annually confounded by how to put together a top-end relief group. In the midst of a push back toward relevancy, the Nationals brought the 42-year-old Rodney and three-time Tommy John recipient Jonny Venters into the bullpen. They joined Javy Guerra, 33, who was released by Toronto before Washington snagged him, and Tanner Rainey, who came from Triple-A out of necessity. It’s an interesting bunch.

Suero and Guerra were set to be the only bullpen members needed Wednesday in Miami during the Nationals’ 7-5 win. That was before Guerra allowed four runs in the bottom of the ninth and Doolittle had to come in to finish the game -- again.

Patrick Corbin pitched seven innings and allowed a run. Washington is a game under .500 and winners of 20 of the last 29 (that’s a .690 winning percentage; a 112-win pace across a full season).

Drag your brain back to the March 28 opener against the New York Mets. Justin Miller was back for a second season after surprising most with an effective 2018. Kyle Barraclough was lined up to be the seventh-inning reliever. Trevor Rosenthal was throwing 98 mph. 

All premises around the trio have since collapsed. Which is part of the reason Rodney and Venters are now in the mix.

From Mike Rizzo’s perspective, bringing Rodney and Venters up now makes sense. It’s low-risk. Putting them on the mound while the team is trending in the right direction -- and dealing with a soft schedule -- enables him to take a look at assets already in-house. Rizzo likely has three plans here: Give Rodney and Venters a shot. If they work, he is able to bolster the bullpen while holding onto assets. If they don’t, cutting them is a low-cost move and space opens for Fresno closer Dakota Bacus, who was named to the Triple-A All-Star Game on Wednesday. Maybe even another dice roll with one of the remaining veterans in Fresno. If none of that works, hop into the fray for a reliever via trade.

Acquiring another reliever this season will be more of a challenge than in the past. The second wild-card spot is having the kind of influence Major League Baseball hoped it would. Coming into the night, the Nationals were three games out of the wild card. Six other teams were within 4 1/2 games of the second National League wild-card position. They need bullpen help as well, creating a competitive mish-mash. 

It’s less cramped in the American League. Four teams are within four games of the second wild-card.

Expect to hear these relief names attached to trade rumors: Ken Giles, Will Smith, Felipe Vazquez, Ty Buttrey, Hansel Robles, Shane Greene, Trevor Gott, Nick Anderson, Cam Bedrosian, and Reyes Moronta. All could be on the move before the July 31 trade deadline. The Nationals would be pleased with any of them. 

For now, they have the bullpen no one expected. Rodney has the imaginary arrows. Suero and Grace have bloated ERAs. Guerra made his 13th appearance Wednesday. Barraclough remains sidelined. Rosenthal is looking for work. 

Rizzo has overhauled half of the group. Further work remains.

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Nationals to wear throwback Expos signature powder blues on July 6

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Nationals to wear throwback Expos signature powder blues on July 6

Bring out the powder blues!

In the decade and a half since the Nationals franchise relocated from Montreal to Washington, D.C. in 2005, the Nationals have only worn throwback uniforms honoring the Washington Senators, who played in the Nation's Capitol from 1901-1960 before the franchise moved to Minnesota and became the current Minnesota Twins. They have not once worn any Expos throwbacks.

That all changes on July 6, when the Nationals will sport the signature Montreal Expos powder blue uniforms against the Kansas City Royals as the Nationals celebrate the franchise's 50th anniversary, according to the Washington Post.

The uniform features powder blue jerseys and pants, with the tri-color red, white, and blue signature Expos cap.

The Royals will also be donning throwback uniforms from their inaugural 1969 season, taking the field in their original road grey uniforms with a cursive "Kansas City" across their chest in Royal blue.

The Nationals are honoring the Expos in more ways than just sporting their old uniforms. Nationals Park will also be going through a makeover, as the Expos 'M' will replace the Nationals 'Curly W' across the park for the afternoon. Additionally, concessions will offer traditional Canadian food, such as poutine, Montreal smoked brisket sandwiches and more. 

Expos legend Vladimir Guerrero will also be in attendance. Other members of the Nationals, such as manager Dave Martinez, third base coach Bob Henley, and MASN broadcaster F.P. Santangelo will be honored for their contributions to the Expos as well.

July 6 should be an exciting day at Nationals Park.

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