Joel Hanrahan is a two-pitch pitcher. He throws a fastball that regularly hits 95-96 mph on the radar gun. And he throws a hard-breaking slider that registers about 10 mph less than the fastball. For the Nationals closer to be effective, he must be able to throw both pitches well.
Tonight, he simply could not do that with the slider.
The Nats lost to the Pirates, 2-1, when Hanrahan bounced one of those sliders in the dirt to Adam LaRoche with two outs and the bases loaded in the top of the ninth inning of a tie ballgame. It rolled to the backstop, and Freddy Sanchez came racing home to score the go-ahead run in the latest example of a Washington bullpen meltdown.
It’s easy to look at that one pitch and harp on Hanrahan for throwing it. But it’s important to look at the way the entire inning played out and what led to that crucial moment.
Hanrahan began the inning pumping fastballs over the plate. He threw four straight to Delwyn Young, the last of which was lined to left field for a single. He started Nyjer Morgan off with three more fastballs before finally going to his slider and ultimately getting Morgan to fly out to right on one of them.
Next up was Freddy Sanchez, who wasted no time sending a first-pitch fastball into left field for a single. Nate McLouth followed by singling to right field on a 1-1 slider that hung up too high in the strike zone.
That was a key development. Both catcher Wil Nieves and manager Manny Acta realized Hanrahan was a little too fired up, was working too fast and was leaving those sliders up in the zone where they shouldn’t be.
Hanrahan’s ideal slider can do one of two things: 1) get over the bottom half of the zone for a called strike, or 2) start at the thigh and then dart down out of the zone, but not before the hitter swings and misses.
“It’s a good out pitch for me,” he said. “It’s my strikeout pitch.”
But too often this season, Hanrahan has started that slider below the strike zone and then bounced it in front of the plate. All the while, the hitter lays off the pitch.
“They look at it, recognize it and say: ‘That’s a ball,’” Hanrahan said.
Which is what both Brandon Moss and Adam LaRoche did in the ninth inning tonight. Five of the first six pitches Hanrahan threw to Moss were sliders. The last two were in the dirt, blocked by Wil Nieves. Hanrahan switched to his fastball and got Moss to ground into a force out at the plate, leaving the bases loaded with two outs for LaRoche.
Despite those two sliders in the dirt, Nieves wanted Hanrahan to keep going down there. The catcher walked to the mound and told the right-hander not to give up on the pitch.
“That’s when his slider is effective, when he throws it down, not too much, but when it sinks like a strike and it bounces on the plate,” Nieves said. “That’s when his slider is real effective. … I told him just to get the ball down, to trust me back there. And he did.”
Hanrahan started LaRoche off with two low sliders, just like Nieves wanted. And LaRoche swung at both, and missed both. So Hanrahan went back down there again. Except this time he bounced the pitch and LaRoche laid off it. Twice. Each time, Nieves blocked the ball and kept encouraging Hanrahan to stick with the pitch.
“Trust me,” the catcher told him. “I can block it.”
Except that on Hanrahan’s fourth bounced slider of the inning, Nieves couldn’t knock it down. The ball squirted through his legs, and the rest was history.
“I should have blocked that ball,” Nieves said. “They trust me when I’m back there to block it. It’s always hard to block his slider, but I should’ve blocked it.”
Hanrahan knows it wasn’t Nieves’ fault. He knows he needs to get that pitch up about a foot higher, just low enough for the hitters to chase it but high enough for his catcher to snare it on the fly.
“Right now, I’m just not giving it a chance. They’re not swinging at it, and I’m not getting it close to the strike zone. Every one of them I’m throwing 60 feet, and that’s not going to cut it.”
As for the overall mentality of the majors’ worst bullpen (now 1-15 with a 6.65 ERA and 13 blown saves in 19 chances), the entire group got together recently and decided it’s not worth agonizing over anymore. All they can do is take the mound and try their best and hope it all works. No more pressure.
“We’ve already got the worst bullpen stats in the league,” Hanrahan said. “If they change us out, they’re going to change us out. You just have to go out there and kind of say: ‘Screw you, and this is what we’re going to do. This is what we’ve got, and we’re coming after you.’”
Hanrahan followed the plan tonight. Unfortunately for the Nats, he just couldn’t execute the pitch he depends on to be successful.