2017 Nationals: Why the clock is running

Steve Ridzik

Steve Ridzik broke in with the 1950 Whiz Kid Phillies and finished with the 1966 Phillies, but had perhaps his best season for the 1964 Washington Senators, for whom he won five games, saved two and had a 2.89 ERA in 112 innings. Ridzik pitched just three innings for the 1950 NL champion Phillies and wasn’t an important member of the staff until two years later. From 1952-55, Ridzik pitched in 104 games for the Phillies, 28 of them starts, winning 17, including a career-high 9 in 1953. The Phillies traded him to the Reds, and from there he went to the Giants (he was 6-2 with a 3.80 ERA for the ’56 Giants despite walking 65 and fanning 53 in 92.1 innings) and Indians before returning to the minors. Ridzik spent most of 1958-62 — the last four full seasons — in the minors, winning 37 games for Toronto before it had the Blue Jays (the minor league team in those years was the Maple Leafs; among Ridzik’s teammates were weak-hitting second baseman Sparky Anderson, who got his start as a manager with the team in 1964; outfielder Lou Johnson, who became a World Series hero with the 1965 Dodgers; and pitcher Al Cicotte, the great-nephew of Black Sox hurler Eddie Cicotte). Ridzik spent the first three months of 1963 with Toronto, before returning to the majors after an absence of more than five years. He earned all 11 of his career saves with the Senators, including eight at age 36 in 1965. The Senators sold him back to the Phils early in 1966 and he pitched his final two games for them in 1966. Ridzik died in 2008 at age 78. Career totals: 39-38, 3.79 ERA, 314 games, four complete games, one shutout, 11 saves, 782.2 innings, 709 hits, 351 walks, 406 strikeouts, 101 ERA+, 4.49 FIP, .722 OPS against, 4.4 WAR.

Up next: It seemed there was almost no minor leaguer the Nationals wouldn’t trade this offseason, except for outfielder Victor Robles. Supposedly he was the snag in a deal for Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen, who was moved to right field when it seemed his destination was Washington. Robles is expected to arrive in Washington in 2018, or about the time Bryce Harper is expected to leave. That’s not a coincidence. The Nats will need Robles then more than they do McCutchen now. Robles hit .280 last year with a .376 on-base percentage, thanks to 34 hit by pitches, which makes it seem as if Starling Marte, who’s been hit 18 times a year over the last four, stands off the plate. Robles will start the season in AA and won’t turn 20 until May 19, which is a reminder of just how rare and how good Harper is, despite a down 2016. By the time Harper turned 20, he had 533 major-league at-bats and was already Rookie of the Year.

What he said: “I don’t like (closer) by committee, because when the phone rings I want guys to know, mentally, when they might be in the game.” Dusty Baker on the Nats’ search for a closer. What he meant: “At least one of us needs to know what we’re doing.”

Outlook: If the MLB network covered baseball the way CNN does politics, they’d have a clock in the lower right corner counting down Harper’s exit from D.C. There’s less than two years till he does — if he does, and at last year’s $40 million per year request, it’s likely if his 2017 is more like 2016 (.243/373/441) than his MVP 2015 (.330/460/649).

“I’m not going to answer any of those kinds of questions,” Nats GM Mike Rizzo said during the offseason. “Those are private discussions between us and the players,’’ but the perception is very public, and it could get very ugly.

The Nationals have won 90 games three times in the last five years, but are 5-9 in the postseason. They lost in five games to the Cardinals in 2012, none of them pitched by Stephen Strasburg, whom the Nats held out because he was coming off Tommy John surgery. It was the kind of concern and long-term planning the Mets deigned to consider for Matt Harvey, who like Strasburg and Harper, is represented by Scott Boras. Strasburg is signed through 2024, but none of the goodwill the Nats earned with him has yet been extended in the way of a discount to Harper.

Negotiations to Boras are like at-bats were to Pete Rose: each one is more important than the last.

Last season the Nats brought in Dusty Baker, which didn’t bode well for postseason success, given Dusty’s lack of it. Dusty’s two best-known October moments were taking the ball from Russ Ortiz in Game 6 of the 2002 World Series against the Angels and then losing a 5-0 lead, and the Bartman Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS, in which the Cubs blew a 3-2 lead.

Since the Nats have never advanced past the best-of-five stage, they were willing to take their chances with Dusty and a 3-2 lead.

The Nats lost to the Dodgers in five games in the NLDS last year, and it’s hard to pin that on Dusty, even though they lost a 2-1 lead and then a 1-0 lead in Game 5. The Nats lost the fifth game for one of the main reasons they lost in 2012 and 2014: their bullpen failed in the deciding moment.

Five of the Nats’ nine playoffs losses have been earned by the bullpen, which has unfailingly bad timing. The Nats bullpen has the unique ability to open a door into the face of someone with two hands full of packages.

In the first four games of last year’s NLDS, the Nats’ bullpen allowed just one run in 17.2 innings, enough to earn Baker’s trust. Then they betrayed it in Game 5 by giving up three runs in the seventh inning of a tie game.

It was another opportunity squandered, as the Harper countdown clock everyone is acutely aware of but pretends they aren’t went tick tock. As Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters might say, the calendar is racing around to come up behind the Nationals yet again.

That’s why GM Mike Rizzo, apparently secure as three managers have lost with 98-, 96- and 95-win teams, traded a couple decades of potential young pitching for outfielder Adam Eaton, whose contract is a lot more favorable than was reaction to the trade.

It’s Rizzo who has built the bullpens which failed each October, safeguarded till now from criticism by Strasburg and Harper. That’s a little like giving a pro golfer credit for the tap-in when it’s the approach that is the critical shot. Rizzo has mastered the former, but he’s lagged on the latter, and maybe the Nats’ failures are just as much the fault of the GM who built the bullpens rather than the manager who used them.

The Nationals begin 2017 with a bullpen worse than they finished 2016, but don’t overreact. The Cubs last year showed it’s possible to upgrade if you’re willing to deal prospects, and if Rizzo was willing to move Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez for Eaton, he’ll be game when the time comes.

Shawn Kelley might be the closer, though he has seven career saves in 356 games. He’s got a strikeout rate of 10.6 every nine innings and fanned 80 in 58 innings last years, which is a pretty good closer’s ratio. If not Kelley, maybe Blake Treinen, who has one save in 148 games, but had a 2.28 ERA last year, which is a pretty good closer’s ERA.

Or if not Kelley or Treinen, maybe rookie Koda Glover, who was an eighth-round draft pick in 2015 and whom the Nats think is ready after 86 minor-league innings and 104 strikeouts. At least any of the above would be an improvement over Jonathan Papelbon

Baker says he wants the relievers to know their roles, and that’s sensible if they can do them. From experience, the Nats have a good idea what can happen if they don’t.

Team song: Pink Floyd: Time

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