Out of spring training, the Washington Nationals remade bullpen went north with two left-handed relievers. Sammy Solis was not one of them. He was off to Triple A in Syracuse.
Looking at the big league roster didn’t provide much hope for Solis that he would be leaving Syracuse shortly. Veteran Oliver Perez was someone the Nationals already knew. Felipe Rivero’s rookie season in 2015 made the Nationals think they had a swing-and-miss left-handed pitcher in the bullpen. Solis would need to keep working in the minors.
Then, Matt Belisle strained his calf. The Nationals opted to bring up Solis on April 27, giving manager Dusty Baker a third left-hander in the bullpen. He may be staying a while.
Perez had a 4.50 ERA coming into Wednesday. Rivero’s struggles in the first part of his second season are fierce. His ERA has rocketed to 6.09. He is being hit hard and often.
Solis has been overpowering since returning to the major leagues. His ERA after two more clean innings on Tuesday night was 1.35, best in the bullpen. His WHIP is a tight 0.98 and he is striking out more than a batter per inning. The opponent batting average against Solis is .152. He has displaced Rivero as Baker’s left-handed choice in tough spots during the game.
“Obviously, I wasn’t thinking it would be too long because you’re coming up for a calf strain with Belisle,” Solis said. “But, at the same time, I didn’t want to look back at all because I felt like this is where I belong and I finally got here and things are going well so far, so hopefully I’m over the hump.”
Solis points to command as the main turning point for him. Though, it’s a bit odd he would choose that. His walk rate has increased this season versus his first stint out of the bullpen last year. But, the difference, Solis said, is the count and command that led to that count. Last year, early off-target pitches led to rapid walks. This season, when Solis ends up walking a hitter, it’s after deeper work in the count.
“I think it’s less four-pitch walks, five-pitch walks,” Solis said. “This year, it’s 3-2 and I’m battling. So, I think that is the biggest difference this year. I’m attacking hitters a lot and pitching to contact.”
The key to that has been his curveball. In the past, Solis threw a knuckle-curve. He used it until the start of the 2015 season before deciding to eliminate it. One of the reasons Solis did away with the knuckle-curve is the knuckle part. As soon as a pitcher’s hand comes out of the glove with the ball, any flash of his raised knuckles can tip the hitter that an off-speed pitch is about to be thrown. Solis, in essence, was showing too much skin.
This year, he’s been using a tradition curveball with two fingers stacked on the seam. According to Fangraphs.com, Solis has gone from throwing the pitch 16 percent of the time to 26.8 percent.
“Because I can command it this year,” Solis said. “Last year, honestly, I would just kind of let it rip and it would end up who knows where. This year I can throw it for strikes and in the dirt when I need to and even backdoor if I need to. I would say the usage of the curveball goes hand-in-hand with my control issues I might have had last year as opposed to this year.”
Jonathan Papelbon’s strain of his right intercostal muscle caused him to go to the disabled list, which bought Solis more guaranteed time in the major leagues. Papelbon pitched a simulated game Wednesday. He starts what is likely to be a short rehabilitation stint on Friday with Double-A Harrisburg. When Papelbon is activated, the Nationals have to decide who in the bullpen is sent back to the minor leagues. Solis has stated his case for where he should be.
Nationals sign Latos
Baker confirmed Wednesday that the Nationals signed right-handed starter Mat Latos to a minor-league contract. Latos was 6-2 with a 4.62 ERA for the Chicago White Sox this season before being released. Latos had previously pitched for Baker when both were in Cincinnati.
“It gives us some depth,” Baker said. “Same reason why we brought in Bronson [Arroyo], who was hurt and is pitching again now. Gives us some depth in case something happens to someone or if nothing else, September’s right around the corner. Mat’s trying to get in the best shape possible. Get in shape first. Get in tip-top shape, which I asked him to do over the winter when I was talking to him about possibly signing then.”
Latos had his best seasons when he was playing for the Reds under Baker. From 2012-14, he had a 3.31 ERA. Latos has had elbow and knee problems since leaving Cincinnati, making him much less effective.
• Todd Dybas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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