The Washington Nationals’ bullpen might be the most distinctive subgroup within the team: a cluster of seven pitchers caged together in one little space every day, far removed from the rest of the team. That’s the perfect recipe for bonding, laughing and learning.
From the bullpen in the outfield, they watch the game, argue over balls and strikes, and talk about anything and everything. Each pitcher has his own routine, seating arrangement and personality.
“That’s why we’re such a tight-knit group, because no one else can really relate,” Ryan Mattheus said. “We’re always caged in a little cage together, sticking up for each other and yapping back at fans.”
Added Craig Stammen: “It’s our little fraternity out there, our own little team. I think we take pride in that. We root each other on probably a little bit harder than we root everybody else on.”
Other than the few times a reliever is warming up in the bullpen and it’s shown on television, fans don’t often look in that direction. In fact, in some ballparks, the bullpen is hard to spot. So fans might know little about what happens back there.
The relievers don’t all take their places in the bullpen by the game’s first pitch. At home, they usually join their teammates on the field for the national anthem and filter over to the bullpen afterward. On the road, however, they take their time.
Stammen and Tom Gorzelanny, the Nationals’ middle relief, are the first pitchers in the bullpen because they’re often the first to enter a game. By the middle of the third, the rest of the relievers make the trek as a group from the clubhouse, through the dugout, onto the field and into the bullpen.
Stammen, Gorzelanny, bullpen coach Jim Lett and the bullpen catcher usually sit in a cluster. Then, when the rest join, everyone finds his spot. Henry Rodriguez, in between his stints on the disabled list, would sit off to the side, his way of focusing — and also because he speaks less English. But he is known for creating new and unique handshakes with teammates on a near-daily basis. Michael Gonzalez bounces around, sitting wherever he wants that day. Mattheus always finds his usual spot between Stammen, to his left, and Sean Burnett, to his right.
Mattheus said: “We just go out there and we sit down. It’s weird. We don’t ever really talk about it. No one ever says, ‘Hey, get out of my seat,’ or anything like that. It’s not superstition or anything like that. … It kind of falls into place.”
From there, they watch the game, analyze at-bats, gauge hitters and watch the tempo of play. Despite the unusual angles and vantage points from far in the outfield, they pick up useful tips.
But it’s also fun and light, considering they spend a ton of time back there over the course of the season. Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard, roommates and friends, banter back and forth, impersonating voices and announcing the game. “You name it, we probably talk about it,” Stammen said.