- - Tuesday, September 10, 2019

There were handshakes all around the Nationals dugout after relief pitcher Aaron Barrett made a tear-jerking return to the major leagues. But the first hug he got Saturday in Atlanta came from pitching coach Paul Menhart, and for good reason.

“He has helped me a lot on the field, but off the field, too,” Barrett said.

Barrett was drafted by the Nationals in 2010 and, three years later, he worked his way to Double-A Harrisburg, where he met Menhart, their pitching coach at the time.

After pitching for the Nationals in 2014 and 2015, Tommy John surgery and other arm problems forced the right-hander from Indiana out of the majors. His comeback was capped Saturday with a scoreless inning of relief against the Braves.

“Aaron is like a son to me,” Menhart said. “That outing was emotional for so many people that helped him get back, myself included.”

After years of toiling in the minors, Menhart, 50, was named a major league pitching coach for the first time in May when the Nationals asked him to replace Derek Lilliquist. Early in his time with the Nationals organization, Menhart said he received some good advice from Nationals director of player development Doug Harris.

“Don’t ever change who you are,” Menhart recalled. “I am who I am. I never claim to know everything. I listen to the veterans as much as I listen to the younger guys.”

That approach is now helping Menhart deal with everyone from Washington’s young pitchers like Wander Suero to veterans like Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg.

“I have a unique way of doing things, which is very difficult to explain,” Menhart said. “I am a big believer in getting guys out as quickly as possible.”

When Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo promoted Menhart, he entrusted Harris to call Menhart with the good news. Menhart took the call from his home in Georgia, where he was based as the roving minor league pitching coordinator.

Paul has worked so hard and so long for that opportunity,” Harris said. “To be able to make that phone call was very special.”

Harris first met Menhart after the latter had worked with Strasburg in the Arizona Fall League in 2009.

“The biggest thing that stood out was his ability to connect with individuals and get the most out of them,” Harris said. Harris was a minor league pitcher with the Orioles.

Menhart and Harris were both drafted in 1990 and played against each other in the minors. They have become more than colleagues, but are close friends. Harris said Menhart has been there for him the past four years as Harris dealt with health challenges, including leukemia.

Washington manager Dave Martinez appreciates Menhart’s communication skills.

“He listens as well,” Martinez said. “He is willing to listen. He takes everything in before he starts to help.”

“He lets us do our thing but also gives us his input, which is really good,” Nationals starter Patrick Corbin said.

MASN TV analyst and former seven-year major leaguer F.P. Santangelo has noted several times on air the “magic trips” Menhart makes to the pitcher’s mound. Santangelo said there have been several cases where something turns out well for Washington pitchers after a Menhart visit.

“I know for a fact it works,” Nationals reliever Javy Guerra said. “He gives me something I can use right away.”

Menhart, however, hasn’t been able to completely solve the bullpen woes.

Washington had the worst bullpen ERA in the majors before Menhart arrived in May. The situation has gotten better, thanks in part to trades in late July, but the ERA was 5.74 with 79 homers allowed going into the series opener Tuesday at Minnesota.

“All we can control is the process and preparation,” Harris said.

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