ATLANTA — Felipe Rivero arrived at his first big-league spring training a promising-but-raw starter who figured to spend the season perfecting his stuff in the minors, hoping perhaps someday well down the road an opportunity would open for him to join the Nationals' stacked rotation.
That, of course, didn't happen. Not that Rivero is complaining. He wound up reaching the majors much sooner than anticipated, wound up spending the majority of the season pitching in Washington's bullpen and now looks like a potential closer for this organization in the not-too-distant future.
"This year has been kind of a blessing for me," the 24-year-old left-hander said. "I got my first win and my first save in the same year. I wasn't expecting that."
Rivero recorded that first win way back on June 24 when he pitched the 11th inning of a 2-1 victory over the Braves. And on Thursday night at Turner Field, he notched that first save, tossing two scoreless innings to preserve a 3-0 victory and add yet another fine moment to an already impressive rookie season.
"He's stepped forward," manager Matt Williams said. "That's a good sign for him and a good sign for this organization."
Acquired along with Jose Lobaton in the February 2014 trade that sent pitcher Nate Karns to the Rays, Rivero has always had an electric arm. But he dealt with injuries in his first season with the Nationals organization, making only 14 starts (most at Class AA Harrisburg) and finishing with a 5.20 ERA.
Then came the news this spring of the move to the bullpen. Not every young pitcher deals with that the same way, but Rivero chose to take the news delivered to him by Williams as an opportunity to reach the big leagues sooner.
"I was like: 'Oh, OK. I gotta make the team that way,'" Rivero said. "He told me one day he liked me as a reliever for us. OK, let's do it."
When the Nationals dealt with all sorts of bullpen issues in April, Rivero got a quick call-up from Class AA Syracuse. He made one appearance but then landed on the disabled list with a gastrointestinal bleeding issue that required medical attention. He returned in early June and hasn't looked back since, posting a 2.85 ERA, 0.972 WHIP and 3.64 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Because of his background as a starter, Rivero often was used as a long reliever earlier in the summer, taking advantage of his stamina. But he has transitioned into more of a late-inning role down the stretch, allowing him to dial up his fastball to as much as 99 mph at times.
And because he has been equally effective against right-handed batters (hitting .205 against him) and lefties (.200), Rivero has proven himself more than a specialist. He might just profile as a closer some day soon.
"His stuff profiles in any inning," Williams said. "He's new to this. First year out, he's done pretty well. Tonight is an example of what he can do. He can work through righties and lefties if needed. We'll see what the future holds."
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