Nationals

Nationals

WASHINGTON -- Tony Sipp is catching up. Both his arm and knowledge are not in their usual place because of his late arrival to spring training.

Sipp has pitched five innings since joining the Nationals on March 13. He’s still working on his surroundings, shoulder strength and new division. Sipp spent just one of his previous 10 seasons in the National League. He has never joined a team so late in the offseason. Those things put him behind.

His adjustment period as the Nationals’ matchup lefty out of the bullpen is about to receive a nuclear jolt. Bryce Harper arrives Tuesday. If the game is close late, manager Davey Martinez will head to the mound, raise his left arm and summon Sipp. Presumably. He could also simply waggle four fingers and take a chance with Rhys Hoskins. That idea did not work great for the Atlanta Braves over the weekend. They walked Harper to pitch to Hoskins. He hit a grand slam.

How the Nationals deal with the prime lefties in the National League East will be a factor this season. Each contender has at least one -- Harper in Philadelphia, Freddie Freeman in Atlanta, Robinson Cano in New York. Washington has one left-handed specialist, Sipp, a left-handed reliever who handles but does not crush left-handed hitters, Matt Grace, and a left-handed closer, Sean Doolittle. None have faced Harper in the regular season. Which begs the question: How will the Nationals try to get Harper out in the late innings?

 

Doolittle has been oppressive against left-handed hitters: a .502 career OPS against him. Sipp not nearly as good: .707. However, 2018 was a revelation for him when he held lefties to a .557 OPS and conjured a 1.86 ERA. Stopping Harper before the ninth would appear to be his duty.

Sipp turns 36-years-old July 12. He debuted in the majors when he was 25 and part of Cleveland’s bullpen. Making it that far was of note. Sipp was selected in the 45th round out of Clemson University. Sticking around for a decade was all the more unlikely. 

Over the years, his fastball reliance and velocity dwindled. Both are natural. The changes prompted Sipp to become progressively tactical. 

“I started out early in my career not really doing a whole lot [of research],” Sipp told NBC Sports Washington. “Video and my natural talents could kind of get me by. But now, I don’t have the stuff to blow anybody away, so I have to know every advantage I could possibly have. Who doesn’t hit the elevated pitch. Who doesn’t hit the low pitch. Who’s not hitting off-speed or who’s aggressive. 

“With the stuff I have, I have to one, be really focused and execute a plan, but I have to have a plan first. The margin of error -- especially for me, living in the low 90s, high 80s -- you can’t miss. Sometimes even if you don’t miss and it’s the wrong plan, that’s the wrong way, too.”

The Nationals released Sammy Solis in order to bring Sipp in. Solis’ failures against left-handed hitters notwithstanding, Sipp’s body of work against his three primary division foes does not inspire confidence. After going 1-for-2 (the out was a would-be double Ryan Zimmerman stabbed) against Sipp during the opening three-game series, Cano has a 1.099 lifetime OPS against him in 23 at-bats. Freeman is 1-for-4 with a walk. So, nothing to see there. Sipp faced Harper once in spring training. No evidence there for a conclusion.

Which puts Sipp in a strange spot. He has a negative body of work against Cano. Freeman does not watch video, he just reacts, which makes deciphering a plan against him all the more challenging. Sipp knows nothing about Harper. Yet.

“I’m in the right spot,” Sipp said Sunday. “His old team should know more about him than I would because I don’t know much about him. ... I’ve never done any research or anything. Obviously, I have to worry about that when it gets here. When he comes into town, I’d like to know what he’s having for breakfast.”

That information is hard to come by. Harper did not get off the train with the rest of the Phillies Monday night. He did not descend from the team buses into their hotel. So, Sipp will have to skip the breakfast and focus on the peripherals available in Washington’s clubhouse. He’s right -- if anyone should know how to get Harper out, it’s the Nationals. Now, they just have to do it.

 

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