- The Washington Times - Monday, May 23, 2016

Dan Firova cannot recall exactly when the trend caught on, all he knows is that it did. Whenever a runner is in scoring position, the Washington Nationals’ bullpen coach waves his right hand and yells, “Big hit, big hit!”

It is a habit the 59-year-old picked up at one point along the 19 years he spent managing in the Mexican League and he carried it to his first major-league coaching job. One day, Firova noticed the Nationals’ relief pitchers doing the same in a key situation. They waved their right hand and held up three fingers to match Firova, who had his pinky finger amputated as a freshman in high school after an accident while cleaning a bandsaw in the wood shop.

“They do this,” Firova said with a laugh as he demonstrated in the clubhouse, wiggling his three fingers. “Or they start shaking their hand. That’s this thing we’ve got going in the bullpen. They’ll go, ‘Hey, need three runs.’ Or, ‘Give him four.’ I wear it well. I know they’re giving me a hard time, but I don’t get mad.”

‘Big hit’ is just a glimpse of the high jinks that go on in the bullpen among the group of fun-loving relievers. Along with Firova, bullpen catchers Nilson Robledo and Octavio Martinez get in on the fun. The loose nature of the group has helped meld together several new faces and personalities: Shawn Kelley, Oliver Perez, Yusmeiro Petit and Matt Belisle all joined Washington in the offseason. So did Firova, who was hired by first-year manager Dusty Baker. Blake Treinen, 28, is in his third season and the only Nationals’ reliever that has been with the team for more than two.

While the group in Washington is fresh, it hardly lacks veteran experience. Full-time closer and prankster Jonathan Papelbon, acquired from the Phillies last July, is in his 12th season. Belisle and Kelley, both free agent acquisitions, have a combined 21 years of major-league experience. Perez has played for seven different clubs since 2002. Together, they’ve all sent the same message: Have fun and work hard, which has helped make for a seamless transition.

Entering Monday, the Nationals’ relievers have a 2.57 earned-run average, the third-best. Since May 9, Washington’s bullpen has allowed just two runs in 32 innings — the best during that stretch.

Team chemistry, in all sports, is undoubtedly beneficial, but smaller cliques naturally develop within. In baseball, position players who hit in the same batting practice groups tend to be closer with each other. The starting pitchers stick together.

Then there are relief pitchers. They’re literally isolated from the rest of the team during games. The innings can get long. They’re not just having fun in the bullpen to stave off boredom. It helps create a tight bond among one another, and most importantly, trust in each other during high intensity situations.

“Well, I think chemistry always wins over strategy,” Belisle said. “But, the great thing to understand is that within a bullpen, it’s extremely important too. It makes it a lot more fun throughout the year. A guy like Pap, has been doing it forever as the back end guy, is fun and always messing around but when it’s time to turn it on, there’s nobody better. Kelley has come from a different variety of teams, has had some veteran leadership to show him the way to do it and he’s a great addition in terms of cutting it up and having fun.

“You know, I think, the meld of Latin and American, too, is really good. Firova is down there, working both sides, having a blast. We all speak a little Spanglish.”

The challenge for a team with a new group of relievers extends well beyond fostering a good chemistry in the bullpen. Defining each pitcher’s role is paramount to success. Baker encourages all his units to get together in spring training, but especially the relievers. They began getting together for dinner approximately once a week, a practice that has extended to regular-season road trips. As the pitchers got to know each other off the field, Baker tinkered with their roles on it.

Now 45 games into the season, their roles are taking shape. Baker has eschewed traditional roles and has relied heavily on matchups. Kelley, Perez and 24-year-old Felipe Rivero have combined for 16 holds. Petit, who signed with the Nationals after four seasons with the Giants, is a versatile long-reliever who can start in an emergency. Treinen, who also has five holds, is 3-1.

“You kind of take the bullpen for granted unless you have a bad bullpen or unless you’re blowing games late or some course of time during the game,” Baker said recently. “Those guys take a lot of pride in keeping the game where it is, if we’re behind, or keeping the lead if we’re ahead.

“In spring training, if you would ask me about my bullpen, I didn’t know at the time. After a while you have some continuity, they know when the phone rings, they know probably who will and won’t go in the game. You don’t want it to be some fire drill, all of a sudden everyone panics when the phone rings.”

Kelley — tabbed the unanimous jokester among the group — has learned through his experiences with the Seattle Mariners, New York Yankees and San Diego Padres that the best bullpens are the closest.

That same tight-knit relationship has manifested itself within the Nationals’ group and it’s reflecting in the results.

“You’ve really got to have each other’s backs,” said Kelley, who has not allowed a run in 15 innings. “There’s so many matchups … you’re only as good as the guy that’s coming in after you. You want a group that’s pulling for each other versus a group that wants everyone’s roles, or is jealous of each other and doesn’t care. Ultimately, we’re here to help the team win games and if we’re all pulling for each other, we have a chance to win games.”

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