When the Baltimore Orioles arrived at Nationals Park on Monday morning, they brought with them a bullpen largely in disarray.
Jim Johnson had just blown his fourth save in his previous five chances. Tommy Hunter, one of their best relievers to this point, was unavailable after fielding a hard grounder with his pitching hand Sunday afternoon. Troy Patton has struggled to be effective. Pedro Strop was placed on the disabled list.
So it seemed the Toronto Blue Jays had laid out the blueprint for how to beat the hot-hitting Orioles: Get into their bullpen.
How was it, then, that the Nationals were almost entirely unable to do so?
It was a mix of things. First, Jason Hammel pitched well on Monday. He didn’t overpower the Nationals, really, but what he did best was pound the strike zone.
Knowing Hammel would throw strikes, the Nationals tried to take advantage of that, and often times they swung early. But as a result, Hammel had thrown only 91 pitches by the time the seventh inning was over.
“A guy like Hammel, he throws pretty much 75 percent fastballs,” said Ryan Zimmerman. “When you have a guy who throws 93-95 mph sinkers, you know he’s going to come at you with fastballs. So it’s tough against a guy like that to work him to get his pitch count up because he throws so many strikes.
“Early in the count those 93-95 mph fastballs are a lot easier to hit if it’s 0-0 or 1-0. It’s tough against a guy like that. We know their bullpen has struggled a little bit. They’ve got some guys on the DL and hurt. So you want to get there. But when a guy’s doing that, you can’t really make him throw balls.”
Zimmerman’s point was a good one. And he also noted that it’s a lot like what the Nationals say about opposing offenses against some of their starters. Because they can pound the strike zone, and in their cases have an array of offspeed pitches that can beat anyone, nobody wants to hit with two strikes — so often times they’re aggressive.
But Zimmerman continued, and he explained what it was like for the Nationals’ hitters in even clearer terms.
“You take and then you’re behind,” he said. “It’s not like his slider and curveball, and he throws his changeup every now and then, are terrible pitches. They’re effective enough to make you swing and miss. So you don’t really want to take the fastball right down the middle, (even though) you know he uses it early in the count.
“You have to pick what you’re going to do. You’re going to hope he’s wild for some reason that day or you’re going to be 0-2 or 1-2 every at-bat and now you’re trying to struggle just to get singles instead of being aggressive. It’s kind of a double-edged sword, I guess, is the best way to put it, against a guy like that, who throws a ton of strikes.”
So it seemed the Nationals took the second tact: swing early and try to hit the fastball. Unfortunately for them, by the time they started working Hammel a little more, forcing him to throw 23 pitches in the sixth, 15 pitches in the seventh and 16 pitches in the eighth, he’d been so economical early that it didn’t put much of a dent into his body of work for the day.
On the whole this is an issue that flummoxes the Nationals on occasion.
The Nationals are above league average (3.83) but near the middle of the pack in pitches seen per plate appearance (3.84) this season — a number likely lowered by the absence of Jayson Werth in the lineup. They’re aggressive (they are third in the National League in swinging strike percentage at 17) but also too passive on many other occasions (they are tied for first in looking strike percentage at 29).
Sometimes it doesn’t matter. Clayton Kershaw threw 132 pitches against the Nationals in a near-complete game and he was still firing his fastball at 93 mph in the ninth. So getting a pitcher’s count up only matters if it serves to fatigue him to the point of ineffectiveness.
Hammel entered Monday’s game with an ERA above five. And he’d probably be the first to tell you he’s not Clayton Kershaw.
The way the Nationals spoke after the game, they seemed to indicate that while Hammel pitched a good game, they knew they missed their opportunities.
“He used both sides of the plate with his fastball and used some pretty good breaking balls,” manager Davey Johnson said, summing up Zimmerman’s explanation in a more blunt way. “We just didn’t get the big hit. Swung the bats OK but not like we’re capable of.”