Nationals: Manager Pitches Oldest Man In Baseball Three Times In 30 Hours

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 07: Fernando Rodney #56 of the Washington Nationals walks to the dugout during the game against the Kansas City Royals at Nationals Park on July 7, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 07: Fernando Rodney #56 of the Washington Nationals walks to the dugout during the game against the Kansas City Royals at Nationals Park on July 7, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images) /

Nationals manager Dave Martinez got two holds out of Fernando Rodney in Tuesday’s day/night doubleheader – but he wanted more.

Washington Nationals manager Dave Martinez has the longevity in this game to get the benefit of the doubt – but his bullpen management un Thursday’s game was – to use the silliest term possible – befuddling.

With a one-run lead going into the top of the ninth, Martinez called on 42-year-old Fernando Rodney to close out a four-game sweep of the Rockies. This came just a day after he recorded a pair of holds in a day/night doubleheader. That’s three appearances in barely over 24 hours for the oldest man in baseball.

Since the Nats scooped Rodney off the DFA pile, it’s been clear that Martinez either wants to give him a fair shot to earn the eighth inning nod, or he thinks he’s already the best man on the roster for it. The trust came easy for Martinez, who coached Rodney when he was the closer for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2012-13.

To Martinez’ credit, Rodney has looked good since the Nats selected his contract almost exactly a month ago. He’s pumping 96-97 mph heaters. He’s slung some arrows. He’s notched six holds and two saves, giving closer Sean Doolittle a much-needed reprieve.

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Throwing Rodney to the wolves makes some sense for a team that needs to find reliable arms for the playoff push. But sending Rodney out there for the 9th inning to protect a one-run lead less than 24 hours after his second appearance in a doubleheader? Does Martinez think this situation is going to come up…a lot?

Part of this discussion has to be about Doolittle, the Nats usual closer and a darn good one at that: 44 games, 43 innings, 2.72 ERA, 23 saves, 1.6 fWAR.

On Thursday night, Doolittle and Rodney were working with the exact same amount of rest – they pitched an inning apiece in each game of the doubleheader. Neither had pitched prior to Wednesday since July 20th.

So when the save situation arose Wednesday night, and Matt Grace, Tanner Rainey, Tony Sipp, and Wander Suero had already been used, did Martinez go with his 32-year-old lockdown closer? Or his 42-year-old setup hopeful? Doolittle, right?

Not to Dave Martinez.

Rodney came in, surrendered two runs, blew the save and took the loss. He failed to complete a Herculean ask from his manager. Does that help Martinez and the Nationals long-term? Because it certainly wasn’t helpful in winning Thursday’s game.

For the Nationals to stay in contention, Martinez has to have enough guys he can trust to win these close games. The fact is, since May 24th, the Nationals have won a lot of friggin’ baseball games. They plan to win a lot more over the next two months. That will take the entire roster – but Martinez isn’t using the whole roster right now.

Doolittle, apparently, was not available for this game. By the ninth, Martinez had already used the only other arms in the pen that he trusts. One of those arms might provide some insight into Martinez’s thinking.

Wander Suero faced only two batters, but he was pitching for the third straight day. Pitching on back-to-back days bothered Suero early in the season, but Martinez hasn’t shied away from using him anyway (The Washington Post’s Jesse Dougherty chronicled it here). Martinez keeps an eye on long-term player development, even favoring it at times over more pressing concerns.

But the tactical long-term advantage to pushing Suero early in the season is clear, even if he blows up in a game or two. They need Suero to be a reliable arm, and slowly but surely, he’s turning into one: in 24 appearances since June 1, he owns a 3.13 ERA while only giving up one home run. After his first 24 appearances this season, Suero was rocking a 6.85 ERA.

Pushing Rodney feels different. It feels somehow in the same category of managerial strategy, but the long-term goals are more abstruse.

Martinez made a similar move with Rodney less than a week ago. On July 19th, the Braves blew up Rodney when Martinez inexplicably left him in for a second inning after Robles tied the game with a home run in the top of the ninth.

Tie game, bottom of the ninth, Doolittle hadn’t pitched in a week, but for some reason I cannot explain, Martinez trotted Rodney out for an ill-fated sequel (as so many are), making him wear it.

Rodney took the loss and threw more pitches (32) than in any other appearance this season.

And then the very next day, Martinez went to Rodney again for a hold. And he held. Does that vindicate Martinez? I don’t think it does. Not when we’re talking about a 42-year-old reliever on his last legs.

Besides, what of the two healthy, well-rested relievers that Martinez left pristine in their boxes? Neither Michael Blazek nor Javy Guerra had pitched in the doubleheader the day before, and they were out there in the bullpen theoretically to pitch in a baseball game, but Martinez elected not to bring them out to play.

Which is absolutely a defensible decision. Blazek is a 30-year-old journeyman with exactly one appearance on the year, and while Guerra has provided decent coverage since joining the Nats mid-May, he was roughed up for four runs while recording a total of two outs across his previous two outings.

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Still, the Nationals are wasting those roster spots if they aren’t filled by pitchers who can help them win games. Three outs from a four-game sweep and Martinez left it on the table. That’s a problem they have to solve. With the trade deadline less than a week away, they don’t have much time.