Before Thursday night’s 8-5 win over the Padres, Nationals Manager Dusty Baker refused to say whether he had chosen an interim closer to replace injured Jonathan Papelbon. As of the middle of the ninth inning, when the Nationals led by four, it looked as if he would not need one to lock down a save situation. Questions about the ninth inning could go unanswered for one more day.
But left-hander Felipe Rivero, who had pitched the eighth, allowed two men to reach with one out in the ninth. Suddenly, the Nationals were in a save situation. Baker brought in veteran right-hander Shawn Kelley, who got two outs and his second save of the week.
“This is what we settled upon,” Baker said. “[Pitching coach] Mike [Maddux] and I talked about it, and we think he’s best suited for that until Pap gets back.”
Kelley, who starred in high school at Ballard and in college at Austin Peay, said Baker told him about the decision Wednesday, asking him to be ready in the ninth inning for now, regardless of matchups. Baker often has used Kelley to match up in the seventh and eighth innings, though righties were hitting .185 against him as of Thursday night and lefties .136.
“I’ll prepare for it just like I do any other time,” Kelley said. “Now I know how he’s thinking.”
Kelley threw 1 2/3 innings Wednesday night. Though Baker did not say so for sure, his newly named ninth-inning man probably will be unavailable to pitch Friday night should there be a need. Baker tries not to push most of his relievers past two days in a row, and Papelbon was no exception. But Kelley’s workload garners particular monitoring given he has had two Tommy John surgeries.
“Maddux has talked about it from the beginning, in spring training, just being honest about it,” Kelley said. “Because we’re not helping ourselves or the team if we try to be a hero every night.”
The 32-year-old, who signed a three-year deal with the Nationals this past offseason after a strong 2015 in San Diego, said the number of times he has warmed up, his pitch count and overall workload contribute to whether he can push through another outing. Maddux checks in with each reliever each day, and Kelley says he tries to tell the truth.
“I hate being honest. I like to say I can pitch every day,” Kelley admitted. “But I will say I have gotten better.”
Kelley has not been charged with a run in seven appearances in save situations this season. He is holding opponents to a .176 batting average in the seventh, .125 in the eighth and .222 in the ninth. He has briefly been a closer before, though he filled in with the Yankees after Mariano Rivera retired. In 75 ninth-inning appearances, opponents are hitting nearly .260 against him, and he is pitching to a 3.58 ERA. His career ERA is 3.57.
“He’s showed us that he wants the ball,” Baker said, though he probably will not be able to give it to Kelley on Friday after two days of work. Perhaps he will choose a second interim closer, though if he does, he probably will not say so beforehand. After all, as Baker always says, the other guys read, too.