Baseball fans love the long ball. They love the flashy plays. They love the no-hit bids and the rare perfect game. All of these things dominate headlines and capture our attention.
The often overlooked bullpen of a club, however, almost always serves as the glue holding everything together. Relief pitching is derived of unsung heroes who are asked to perform on short notice and in sticky, high-pressure situations.
Head skipper of the Washington Nationals, Dave Martinez, is being criticized for his handling of the bullpen during the first half of the season.
By now it's well-documented that the Nats played their first 96 games at .500 leaving the club in third place in a division the team has walked all over back-to-back years.
Sure, one can chalk it up to injuries, lack of roster changes or an inexperienced first-year manager working through kinks. But, there's a reason this team expects to compete for a pennant year in and year out: depth. The buzz around Martinez's decision-making continues to point toward his inability to dish out relief pitching assignments to the player's liking.
Brandon Kintzler, Ryan Madson, Sean Doolittle, Sammy Solis and Matt Grace once made up the team's relief staff in May. Between disabled-list periods for Kintzler and Madson, and Sammy Solis being sent down to Class AAA Syracuse, the staff took a beating in the month of June.
Nats relievers aren't necessarily upset about overuse, but more so because of a lack of communication between player and manager.
At times during the first half of the season, relief pitchers felt overworked and that their wishes were not being acknowledged nor granted by Martinez.
Sean Doolittle was quick to point out that the addition of Kelvin Herrera, who joined the team on June 18, sparked a change in Martinez's approach.
“Over the last maybe month or so, maybe since we got Herrera, he’s gone around to the relievers and been a lot more proactive with that communication,” Doolittle said.
On a more tricky note, trust has also been targeted as an area needing improvement.
When a starter gets in a jam or doesn't seem like he is 100%, Martinez often calls on reinforcements to begin the warming up process. Guys have noticed a pattern in which relief pitchers who initially warm up are often not the ones who start the following inning.
From a relief pitcher's perspective, this is a sign of Martinez's distrust. Dramatic or not, there was a glaring disconnect throughout the first half of play.
“With a veteran group, I think we all expect to come into a team and say we’ve all been there; we just want things to go boom, boom, boom and be a piece of cake. But we also all know it’s not like that,” Shawn Kelley said.
Handling his veteran rotation in the second half of the season should become easier for Martinez as Stephen Strasburg is expected to start Friday. The right-hander was placed on the disabled list June 10 with right shoulder inflammation.
Strasburg pitched 5 2/3 innings in a rehab start for Class A Potomac on Sunday, allowing three runs while striking out seven and walking one. It was his second rehab start since going on the DL. He allowed one run in 3 1/3 innings for Potomac on July 11. Strasburg is 6-6 with a 3.46 ERA this season, striking out
95 in 80 2/3 innings.
One thing that hasn't been criticized is Martinez's positive attitude. Players often rave about him as a person and how he brings a source of energy in the clubhouse.
This was on full display during Monday night's Home Run Derby at Nationals Park.
Moments after Bryce Harper won the Derby, Martinez was among the first to congratulate his All-Star slugger as he hoisted him in the air.
As the second half of the season gets underway Friday, expect to see a manager who brings forth an openminded approach to his club while in pursuit of a deep October run.