- The Washington Times - Monday, September 18, 2017

The oddity of being left-handed, like only 10 percent of the population, is the main bond behind a batch of Washington Nationals relievers. The foursome has been left-hand dominant throughout their lives, eventually leading them to a lucrative career of getting hitters out.

That’s where most of the commonalities for the group end. Oliver Perez, Sammy Solis, Enny Romero and Matt Grace have careening paths to this point and large variations between them, ranging from age to pitch selections. Beyond the hand they throw with, they hope to share one other thing in three weeks: a spot on the postseason roster.

Multiple auditions are occurring while Washington plays out the final games of the regular season. Young outfielders, like Victor Robles, are trying to convince Nationals manager Dusty Baker that they belong on the postseason roster. In the bullpen, that job has fallen to the four left-handers who, at times, have been part of the problems and solutions for the back end of the pitching staff.

When Baker assesses the left-handers, he’ll be taking into account their most recent work and earlier innings, their postseason past and the opponent. Day by day, the latter looks more likely to be the Chicago Cubs, who will come with a dose of nostalgia and last season’s curse-breaking championship.

“I always take into consideration what a guy has done for us to get us there, and also how a guy is looking now, and also looking to where he was in the pecking order prior to these injuries,” Baker said. “We’re in the process of trying to decide exactly who’s going to be on the roster. It’s not like a test or a tryout or anything like this, but you do have your eyes open.”

Among the left-handers is whimsical Oliver Perez. He is 36, in his 15th season and gray has flooded his faux hawk. At times, he twists his back to the plate during his windup. Others, he quick pitches the batter. Every time he leaves the mound, he hops over the first base line no matter how the outing went. For his Aug. 15 birthday, Perez received a candy-stuffed pinata on his clubhouse chair. His kids ate most of the candy.

That Perez is a near-lock for a postseason relief spot at this stage of his life is hard to believe. Perez had to reinvent himself as a lefty reliever at age 30 after being out of baseball for almost two years. This season, playing for his seventh team, Perez has allowed just 16.1 percent of inherited runners to score. That’s seventh in the major leagues and third in the National League. After pitching 3 ⅓ scoreless innings, with three strikeouts, last year in the postseason, Perez is expected to be there again this season.

Just over from the pinata is Sammy Solis. He’s 29 now, leaving behind the label “former starter” and just working as a reliever. The Nationals gave him a long benefit of the doubt this season when a curious nerve problem in the elbow of his throwing arm popped up.

Solis‘ start to the season was mess. In April, he had an 8.31 ERA. The team shut him down. When he returned in July, he still wasn’t right. His ERA that month was 18.00. But, since Aug. 1, Solis‘ outings have gone progressively better. In 13 ⅔ innings, he has allowed five earned runs (3.29 ERA). Two of the runs he allowed came in his first outing in August. Since, he has thrown 13 innings and allowed three earned runs (2.08 ERA). He currently has a scoreless innings streak of 5 ⅔ innings with seven strikeouts. Here’s how Solis described his arm problem:

“It just took wayyy longer than I thought for my arm to bounce back. Up until the All-Star break, I wasn’t right with my arm, with my mechanics because my arm wasn’t right, everything was thrown off completely. I was a completely different pitcher than I am right now. Part of the problem is trying to throw through my injury. The other part of that, I think, is trying to pitch or find a new way of pitching while not having my best stuff. Not only was my arm hurting in the beginning, I had nerve pain running down to my hand, I had tingling and burning, and all that. But once that stopped, it still was completely dead. I had nothing on the ball. I was throwing 91 when I throw 95, with no location, no off-speed.”

And now?

“Going into the playoffs this year, it’s no-holds barred,” Solis said. “I’m ready to go. As far as how I feel this year, my arm feels fantastic. I’m picking up steam now, I think, lowering that ERA each time I go out there, thankfully, because that thing needs some work.”

Across the clubhouse form Solis is Enny Romero, one of seven Dominican players currently on the Nationals roster. He’s tough to figure. Romero throws 100-mph fastballs often. He strikes out 10.5 batters per nine innings. Simply put, if Baker needs a left-handed pitcher to strike someone out — ideally a right-handed hitter because Romero has heavily reversed splits — Romero would be a potent option.

However, he also walks a lot of batters and is hit often. His WHIP is 1.41 this season and 1.52 for his career. His 3.66 ERA this season is a career low. His 51 ⅔ innings pitched is a career high despite a disabled list stint in August because of a left forearm strain. Romero has no postseason experience, which means his potential for that time is in the eye of the beholder.

The last left-hander is Matt Grace. He has been sent to the minors and recalled more times this season than any other player on the roster. He could be considered as the Nationals’ long man out of the bullpen, though the quality of his work has fluctuated during the season. In July, his ERA was 2.51. In August, it rocketed to 6.46. During limited work in September, his ERA is 1.80. Which of those does Baker, and pitching coach Mike Maddux, believe?

Grace, like Solis and Romero, is trying to catch Baker’s attention in the final weeks of the regular season. Perez has done that.

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