DENVER — The Washington Nationals needed a spot on their active roster for Ross Detwiler on Thursday afternoon as the left-hander returns from a month-long stay on the disabled list with a right oblique strain, and they decided to clear it by optioning right-handed reliever Erik Davis back to Triple-A.
And in doing so, the Nationals brought a bit more stability to a bullpen that has undergone a major makeover in the last two weeks.
Davis, who appeared in five games for the Nationals, impressed the team in his debut with his ability to pound the strike zone, and while they still think highly of him and secure knowing they can call on him again if needed, he did not pound the zone with as much regularity in his subsequent outings.
“He started getting a little more cautious,” manager Davey Johnson said before Thursday’s game.
But there was another factor in the decision: the performance of Ross Ohlendorf, who threw six innings of two-hit baseball on Wednesday night against one of the best offensive teams in the major leagues. Johnson wanted badly to keep Ohlendorf around, and keeping him as a long reliever also allowed him some more security in the bullpen.
The Nationals would have had to designate Ohlendorf for assignment in order to send him back to the minor leagues and would’ve run the risk of losing one of the few pitchers they have in the system who is capable of serving as starting depth.
“Certainly the job Ohlendorf did last night, he earned the right to stay here and provide innings security,” Johnson said. “Erik Davis can go down and keep pitching and always be available.”
The move also allows the Nationals to free up right-hander Craig Stammen, who is arguably their most consistent reliever, to pitch in more than just long relief situations. Stammen is extremely valuable because of his flexibility — and his ability to remain successful regardless of the role — so with Ohlendorf as something of an innings security blanket, Johnson can feel freer to use him in late-game situations more often.
That leaves the Nationals with a bit more of a traditional bullpen structure, and far more in the vein of the way Johnson likes to operate his bullpen.
In keeping three left-handers, Ian Krol, Fernando Abad and Xavier Cedeno, the Nationals have the left-handed short relief they lacked at the outset of the season.
“I have a much more balanced ‘pen than at any time in the season,” Johnson said. “Which, going forward, makes me sleep better.”
The hope at the beginning of the year was that Zach Duke would be able to serve as their lone left-hander, despite being a long man and spot starter, and their right-handers would be able to handle to lefties. But it didn’t work out that well.
And while Cedeno figures to be optioned back to Triple-A on Sunday when Stephen Strasburg is ready to return to the Nationals’ rotation, Abad and Krol — neither of whom have allowed a single run — have been superb and filled out the Nationals bullpen extremely well.
“Certainly Ian Krol the youngster has done a good job in the short time he’s been here, and Abad has been letter perfect,” Johnson said. “It gives us the balance that I like in the bullpen. I like two left-handers. You gotta control the match-ups late in the ball game. So I should be smarter from here on in.”
The question, of course, is why the Nationals didn’t try to configure their bullpen this way from the start — particularly given the way Johnson used his bullpen in the past, including 2012 when they had three left-handers for the majority of the season. The team did pursue a few left-handed options this offseason, including most notably J.P. Howell, but they chose to sign elsewhere.
“You’re asking the wrong person,” Johnson said. “I think we made offers, and they chose different.”
Johnson shrugged. In the present, anyway, he’s much happier.