FORT MYERS, Fla. — Thursday was a scramble. The Washington Nationals were hauled across the state to their final spring training game, an afternoon in Fenway South to play the Boston Red Sox in Fort Myers.
The bus arrived a bit late. The truck with their gear was also behind. Washington was just a few hours from leaving Florida via the airport just two miles down the road. Manager Dusty Baker had a message to deliver before he could become organized amid the chaos of the final day in Florida.
Baker tracked down Blake Treinen, a country-music loving, quiet person who also throws a 95-mph sinker. Washington’s offseason pursuits of a closer had failed. That prompted an internal race during the spring. It dragged right up until Baker told Treinen Thursday under the left-field stands in JetBlue Park that he would be the team’s closer when they took the field Monday.
Treinen won the role from two teammates: young Koda Glover and veteran Shawn Kelley. Both had injury concerns. Glover tore the labrum in his left hip last season and spent the winter rehabilitating the injury. Kelley has twice undergone Tommy John Surgery.
Treinen was not saddled with those concerns, though his talent almost prevented him from earning the spot. His best pitch is his sinker, a dipping cannonball that Baker turned to often last season when there was trouble for another pitcher. Treinen’s set role in 2016 was to enter the game whenever one of his teammates needed to be bailed out. He will be reserved for the ninth this season.
“I think a lot of us came into spring, willing to put our heads down and compete and be the best that we can, knowing that we’re all going to have valuable innings,” Treinen said. “To be in the position Dusty has put me in, I feel honored. I’m excited to have that opportunity. I’m looking forward to progressing and taking it this season and doing the best I can for my teammates and hopefully locking down games for us.”
He enters the spot with one career save and adamant about remaining the same personality. Treinen laughed when asked about his closer entrance, saying “The Outsiders” by Eric Church will still be his music. There will be no pyrotechnics called for — at least not from his end — and no more screaming, “Woooo!” from legendary wrestler Ric Flair, as there was when Jonathan Papelbon came into games. Even the mild-mannered Mark Melancon ran to the mound chased by the sounds of AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” when closing games at Nationals Park last season.
“Same guy, just doing the same thing,” Treinen said. “Different inning, that’s all.”
What the Nationals want to stay the same with him are the results from his sinker. Treinen threw the pitch 68.8 percent of the time last season. He’ll mix in a slider and rarely slow things down with a changeup.
The biggest change that landed Treinen this prime role is his ability to get out left-handed hitters. They battered him in 2015, when they hit .336 against him and temporarily forced Treinen from the majors to the minors to figure out what was wrong. Last season, Treinen stifled left-handers with his slider, restricting them to a .225 average against him. He’s able to veer pitches to either side of the plate — either in on the hands or down and away — because of the sinker-slider combination. That led to a 2.28 ERA last season.
“[His sinker is] the toughest pitch to teach and he has it naturally,” Baker said. “That’s the best pitch, to me, in baseball. I didn’t like facing those guys because they’ll run it in on you, then [you] back off the plate to get that, then you can’t get that slider down and away. You’re always like never comfortable. That’s a bad feeling as a hitter.”
Treinen learned about preparation habits last season from Kelley. How much time he had to get loose, when to start thinking about getting ready, how to warm up and cool down properly when he didn’t enter the game. Being in charge of the ninth will provide structure, but also extra pressure.
“I haven’t had most opportunities in the ninth, maybe only a handful of times in my career,” Treinen said. “But I think the biggest thing is to approach every hitter like anybody else, just try to get outs. The fewer pitches I throw, the more times in a row I can go, but the biggest thing is to get outs. I don’t care if it’s striking him out. Cool. If I get a ground ball, cool. If someone gets on and we roll a double play, cool. That works, too.”
Finding a closer has been an annual chore for the Nationals. In each of the last two seasons, they made trades around the All-Star break to acquire a new closer. Two seasons ago, they traded for Papelbon. Last season, Papelbon was removed from the role and replaced by Melancon. Washington tried to retain Melancon in the offseason, but he chose to sign with the San Francisco Giants for more money than Washington was offering. The Nationals also reportedly made an offer to the Dodgers’ Kenley Jansen.
When neither accepted Washington’s money, and a trade for another closer could not be completed, the Nationals started spring training set to choose from within. Glover said he was willing to take the role, as did Kelley. Treinen, Kelley and Glover were also insistent that it was less a personal competition than a group supporting each other as it moved toward the outcome.
Turning to Treinen instead of paying one of the offseason’s premier closers saves Washington a large sum. Treinen will make around $535,000 this season — just more than the league minimum. Jansen signed a five-year contract for $80 million with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Melancon will be paid $62 million over four years in San Francisco. Aroldis Chapman will make $86 million during his five years with the New York Yankees.
Baker pointed out that Treinen is now in a position that many before him have shared. John Smoltz, Papelbon and Derek Lowe, among others, evolved from starters to effective closers. They stumbled at some point when working the ninth. Baker expects Treinen will do the same.
“There’s going to be some stumbles,” Baker said. “I don’t want him to think… you’re going to have to stumble quite a few times before we’re going to make a change. You’re just crazy [to keep them as closer] if they keep stumbling and it ain’t working. But, you can’t just have one stumble and get somebody else. How do you develop that?”
So, when the home opener comes Monday, if a closer is needed, Treinen will leave the bullpen with his country music coming from the speakers, same as last year. This time, though, he will handle the ninth inning for a team defending the National League East crown and among the favorites to win the World Series. He may try to be the same. His circumstances will not be.
• Todd Dybas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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