The Washington Post
Fatigue’s now simply routine for Solis, Nats
This month, Brandon Kintzler pulled up a chair next to Sammy Solis, who spends his home afternoons a few stalls down in the Washington Nationals’ locker room. Solis was struggling at the time, his inconsistency climbing in correlation with his workload.
“If someone came to you and asked you what kind of pitcher you are,” Kintzler said, “what would you say?”
Solis told him he would say he was a pitcher who always attacked, who went right at hitters, who didn’t nibble.
“I said, ‘Why aren’t you doing that?’ ” Kintzler said. Solis didn’t have an answer.
“If you’re going to get beat left-handed at 95 [mph],” Kintzler said, “I’d rather you get beat with that than your third-best pitch. . . . He’s got to be in full-on attack mode with his fastball, which makes hitters uncomfortable.”
As he and Kintzler talked, Solis began to understand the reasons he had shifted away from that go-right-at-them mentality. The 29-year-old has spent most of this season trying to survive a grueling workload that has included 26 appearances through 48 team games, tied for the second most in the majors, as well as nearly daily warmups. Solis’s career high in appearances is 37.
A load like that would worry any reliever, but the reason Solis became a reliever in the first place was that he couldn’t stay healthy as a starter. He has endured one Tommy John surgery. He landed on the disabled list last year with a nerve problem in his throwing elbow.
When they talk among themselves, his fellow relievers worry openly about whether he can endure the grind. His manager, Dave Martinez, has had few choices. Solis has been his only lefty besides closer Sean Doolittle since Matt Grace suffered a groin injury in late April. But even Martinez has changed his approach with Solis: He used him for an inning at a time for most of April, but Solis’s previous seven appearances before Wednesday required him to get two outs or fewer. Then, after two games without pitching, he threw 11/ scoreless innings in the Nationals’
3 loss to the San Diego Padres.
“One batter is better than an inning or more than one, but I’m still warming up. I’m still going through my routine. I’m still throwing 20 pitches in the bullpen,” Solis said. “So, yes, it does help. Does it completely eliminate my fatigue? No, it doesn’t.”
The mention of fatigue brings us back to that conversation Solis had with Kintzler. Why wasn’t he attacking? Why wasn’t he using that powerful fastball like he wanted? Partially because many days this season, it didn’t feel so powerful at all.
After consecutive days of work or even consecutive days of warming up, Solis feels his fastball velocity dip from 95 to 93 mph. Every pitcher experiences a similar dip when workload increases. Velocity falls, and so does feel — a dip that doesn’t always, or even usually, foretell an injury. Solis, for example, said after years spent learning the difference between an injury and fatigue, he is well aware that he is experiencing the latter.
But normal though they might be, those dips and deficiencies feel like giant pimples on a pitcher’s forehead, blemishes he thinks every hitter must see, knowing they have that pitcher beat. But veteran relievers such as Kintzler, Doolittle and others know hitters do not necessarily sense any difference.
“I think Sammy is also learning when he’s on fumes, you still don’t have to go away from what your best pitch is, which is your fastball,” Kintzler said. “You might not be 95 — say it’s 93 — but if you’re throwing it with conviction and you’re attacking, it still makes guys uncomfortable.”
Solis implemented the new approach last weekend against the Los Angeles Dodgers, when Martinez called on him to face left-handed slugger Cody Bellinger twice in two days. The first time, Solis nib- bled, then left a pitch up for Bellinger to drive for a home run. The second day, his velocity down from where it was in the previous ill-fated appearance, Solis decided to go right at Bellinger. He struck him out.
“I still got him, attacking and then spinning a breaking ball down he wasn’t ready for,” Solis said. “So [the old approach] has shown success. I just need to keep doing that.”
To keep doing that, Solis must stay healthy, something his fellow relievers worry about constantly. He said Kintzler is always telling him, “Hey, if you need a day, tell them you need a day.” But for Solis, his definition of “needing a day” has changed.
“In the past, it was like, ‘Ugh, I’m throwing a lot,’ ” Solis said. “Now it’s just: ‘Yeah, I can throw. I’ll go.’ You come to terms with it. I like being the guy they go to. It’s tough, but I do like it.”
Kintzler, Doolittle and Ryan Madson constantly tell the less-experienced relievers to throw less in the bullpen. Some of them throw as many as 30 pitches before entering the game for their eight warmup pitches. Solis has learned to throw as little as possible, not getting totally ready in the bullpen, trying not to waste bullets until he reaches the mound. But Kintzler still “yells at him” regularly.
So far, Solis has withstood the load. Madson is the only one of the much-used four to land on the disabled list so far, and he insists that was more of a fluky injury than a product of overuse. Still, Martinez, his staff and his relievers are constantly anxious about the health of those relievers, whom he has begun to manage differently in the interest of preservation.
But Solis always has been a pivotal part of this bullpen, for better or worse, a guy who ends up facing the big lefty in the big spot — whether everyone agrees with the matchup or not. Thanks to that conversation with Kintzler, he is back to pitching the way that earned him that position — the way that earned him all these appearances in the first place. The question for Solis, his teammates and his manager is how they can help his body withstand the workload.