LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Since arriving in the Nationals bullpen during the 2011 season, Ryan Mattheus has proven effective thanks primarily to his ability to throw sinkers down and in to right-handed hitters (down and away to lefties). It's a formula that's worked well for Mattheus, who in 101 career appearances owns a 2.84 ERA and only 7.6 hits allowed per nine innings.
But the 29-year-old understands this is a game of adjustments, and the longer he's in the big leagues, the more opposing hitters will adjust to his pitching patterns.
So Mattheus is making a point this spring to add something new to his repertoire: A sinker on the other corner of the strike zone.
"I mean, that's the thing I have to attribute all my success so far in the big leagues to: the good sinker," he said. "But the more times guys start to see me, they're going to get onto that pattern. So I'm trying to establish more both sides of the plate this year, because I don't spin the ball very well [throwing breaking balls]. We tried that coming in last year, that experience is over. I'm going to have to command both sides of the plate with the fastball."
Mattheus has plenty of motivation to perfect that sinker on the other corner, because he knows he's going to be asked to face more left-handed hitters this season than in the past.
With the potential for zero lefty specialists in the Nationals' Opening Day bullpen -- Zach Duke will be considered a long reliever and emergency starter -- manager Davey Johnson is going to count on several right-handers (Mattheus, Tyler Clippard, Craig Stammen) to retire tough left-handed hitters in key spots.
"I'm going to be asked to face more left-handed hitters this year, and guys in the bullpen are going to be asked to face more left-handed hitters," Mattheus said. "So I'm really going to try to work the inside part of the plate to left-handers, more so the sinker on the inner half, trying to throw the come-backer on the inner half of the plate and not just live on the arm-side part of the plate. With right-handers I can do that, I can just keep going farther in. But lefties, they'll go out there and get you, so I'm working on keeping them honest inside."
Even when he wasn't pitching them on the inside corner, Mattheus had significant success against lefties. In his career, he's held them to a paltry .214 batting average and .294 on-base percentage.
Mattheus hasn't been told directly how he'll be used this season, but he knows the Nationals saw three lefty relievers depart over the winter (Sean Burnett, Michael Gonzalez and Tom Gorzelanny).
"One of the reasons why we felt not under the gun to sign those guys is all of my right-handers basically have been very successful against left-handers," Johnson said. "You look at Clippard's numbers, you look at [Drew] Storen, you look at Mattheus, you look at Henry [Rodriguez], Stammen ... all of them are pretty good in both situations. I do like to match up late, and I won't have that option. So that will be an adjustment. I'll be matching up with either sinker, split, changeup or 100 mph fastball."
Mattheus took some pride in the fact general manager Mike Rizzo didn't make more of an effort to bring in a true lefty specialist this winter, trusting the Nationals' right-handers could handle the job.
"That's absolutely a great vote of confidence that he's not worried about us getting left-handers out," he said. "I take it as a compliment when he gives me a ball in a big situation to go get a Ryan Howard or an Ike Davis out, it's a big vote of confidence."