NEW YORK — Tom Gorzelanny made 15 starts for the Nationals this season. He had mixed reviews. There were eight-inning, three-hit shutout performances, like the one he spun against San Francisco. And there were six earned run debacles in five innings like the one he suffered in Milwaukee.
But as the Nationals came out of the All-Star break, they made a decision that, Gorzelanny’s performance aside, it was time to give Ross Detwiler the opportunity to start. In many ways it seemed as though Gorzelanny was being banished to the bullpen — even though it was explained to him that the move was in no way a reflection on his own work. Still, he considered himself a starter. Being in the bullpen wasn’t what he wanted.
And yet, as the Nationals close in on the season’s final two weeks, Gorzelanny has been almost just as effective out of the bullpen as any of the Nationals best relievers. “He’s just been great out of the pen,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson.
“It’s a good feeling to know that I can do that well,” Gorzelanny said. “I feel like I started well this year. There’s probably a couple of starts that were bad but when I moved to the ‘pen I didn’t think I’d had a bad year at all and I’d been successful as a starter. To know I can be successful out of the ‘pen, it helps out a lot.
“I know I love starting and the bullpen’s growing on me now. I enjoy it down there.”
The question for Gorzelanny now is which path will become his future — and if it will include the Nationals. Gorzelanny is still under contract for two more seasons and if the Nationals decide to tender him a contract this offseason, his arbitration process will be a unique one. As they decide how he’ll be compensated for the 2012 season, in a sense, they’ll have to decide if he’ll be a member of the team’s starting rotation or their relief corps. The payscale tends to be a bit different for each.
It’s a decision Gorzelanny would welcome with open arms.
“I think I’m to a point now where I’d like to choose one or the other and just focus on that,” he said. “But that is up to them… It’s almost tough to answer because I don’t know what I want to do. I want to pitch. But do I want to be a starter or a reliever? I don’t want to be the guy who’s going to be a starter and then halfway through be a reliever. I’d like to have one set role.”
“I like to know and to have the routine of a stater but I also enjoy the fact that I’m sitting down there (in the bullpen) and I don’t know if I’m going in. When they call my name I’ve got to be ready so there’s a lot of excitement down there to go get in the game… and I like that but I think that being in the ‘pen, for me, if I’m in the pen I’d like to be one of those guys that contributes out of the ‘pen. Not so much as a mop up guy or an innings eater. i’d like to be a middle reliever or a setup guy. If I were to just be exclusively out of the pen, that’s something I’d want to shoot for instead of being a long guy.”
One case that could be made for him staying in the bullpen is the fact that Gorzelanny has seemed sharper out of the bullpen than he did many times when he was starting. One of the biggest issues he faced this season was, when he’d have a difficult start, the home run ball would cause him a lot of problems. Since he’s been in the bullpen, opponents are slugging nearly 100 points lower off him than they were when he was a starter (.387 out of the bullpen, .452 as a starter).
It’s a change he’s noticed himself.
“I’ve felt like a lot of my stuff has been sharper out of the ‘pen because I’ll use all the energy in that one or two innings that I pitch and I’ve felt like my stuff’s been better,” he said. “I’ve been more consistent out of the pen and it’s something that I started seeing. I was like, ‘Wow.’ My sinker was moving a little more than it normally does. I think it has to do with all of the adrenaline you get when they call you and running in from the bullpen and get after it. Starting, you’re trying to set up guys. I think if you act like a reliever as a starter, you’ll be done in the fifth inning every night. It’s not the same amount of energy you can use. It’s refreshing to know that the stuff is still there. It’s down there. I’ve just got to get it out.”
Gorzelanny has been in the major leagues in parts of the last six seasons, but he’s also been traded twice and knows that his role is in an uncertain area with the Nationals growing stable of arms. His performance out of the bullpen this season though has, if anything, given the Nationals another aspect to consider when evaluating him and where he fits in their organization going forward.
“I still like him as a starter,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “I like him as a reliever. Those questions are going to be answered on who the organization feels will be the best fit as a starter and as a reliever. Not just a reliever — a long man, spot starter. There are quite a few guys competing for all those spots. It’s taken more shape right now but at the end of this season, that’ll clear and then there’ll be competition for all those spots in the spring.”
“I think if a decision’s made, if it’s one way or the other, i’d like to stick with that and work on that,” Gorzelanny said. “But I think it’s just one of those things, it’ll just be when the day comes, they’ll decide and that’s that. It’s obviously a decision they have to make. It’d be great to be back here and be in a role. They’ve got a lot of good pitchers down here, good starters that they want to see out there. If they want me in the ‘pen, I’ll be in the ‘pen for them.
– Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth wasn’t in Johnson’s initial lineup as he deals with some left calf and left knee issues but Johnson communicated with Werth early Thursday morning and the right fielder told him he was good to play. He had been receiving treatment on the leg last night for stiffness but felt well enough to play right field in the series final with the Mets.
Rick Ankiel, who has made highlight-reel plays the past two nights, was back in center field to allow Werth’s legs a little extra rest in right.