Before the Washington Nationals’ 1-0 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers on Monday, manager Dusty Baker made it clear it was unlikely closer Jonathan Papelbon would be eased back into action following his return from the disabled list.
“He probably don’t want no soft landing,” Baker said. “He don’t know nothing about a soft landing. He’d probably get mad at me if I give him a soft landing.”
Of course, the outcome of the game was going to dictate how Papelbon was used and the Nationals needed him in a high-leverage situation. Starter Max Scherzer allowed one run — a solo home run to catcher Martin Maldonado in the fifth inning — in six innings of work, but needed 114 pitches to get there.
After Felipe Rivero and Shawn Kelley worked through the next two innings, Baker called on Papelbon in the top of the ninth for one last chance to hold the deficit at one run. Papelbon cruised through the frame in 13 pitches. He struck out Maldonado to lead the inning, got Ramon Flores to ground out and Hernan Perez fanned on a 2-2 slider.
Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos drew a two-out in the bottom of the inning, but first baseman Ryan Zimmerman grounded out to end the game. It was a quiet offensive performance. Junior Guerra held Washington to just two hits and struck out seven in 7 1/3 innings.
“It felt good to get out there and contribute,” Papelbon said. “At the end of the day, we lost the game. Obviously our main goal is to win the game. We went up against a tough pitcher today, and that happens. I was just happy to get back out there and feel strong and healthy.”
Papelbon was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a strained right intercostal muscle and had not pitched since June 12. It was the 35-year-old’s first stint on the disabled list in his career and Papelbon said he felt “pretty strong” in his return.
“I felt like my delivery was intact,” he said. “I feel ready to go and continue the season to the last pitch of the season.
“We got the best training staff I think in the big leagues here. [Athletic training director] Paul Lessard has assembled a team here that’s pretty good. I just try to stick with what they say and also give them what I think and put our minds together to come up with the best situation for me to stay healthy throughout the season.”
In order to activate Papelbon from the disabled list, they optioned outfielder Michael A. Taylor to Triple-A. In the last seven games he’s played, Taylor had two hits in 22 at-bats and struck out 10 times. Taylor, who began the season as the starting center fielder after Ben Revere sustained an oblique injury, is hitting .225 this season with six home runs and 12 RBI.
By optioning Taylor and not a relief pitcher, that Nationals opted for a deeper bullpen and a shorter bench. In the series against the Cincinnati Reds last weekend, the Nationals’ bullpen pitched 17 innings in four games. In last Friday’s 14-inning marathon, Baker called on five different relievers over seven innings in a 3-2 victory.
Baker also said he felt that it was difficult to send Taylor to minors, but that the regular at-bats could benefit the outfielder.
“We weren’t in a position to go with 12 pitchers right now because the way our bullpen, these consecutive games, the way our bullpen has been. We’ll do something in a few days to try and correct that. It’s tough going with four bench players…really three because of your second catcher. That’s not the move we really wanted to make, but we felt it could help Michael to play and he could be back in 10 days.”
• Anthony Gulizia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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