Menhart 'very grateful,' eager to help Nationals

May 3rd, 2019

PHILADELPHIA -- When Paul Menhart went to take his dog, Gracie, for a walk three days ago, he knew it might be the last chance he would have for awhile to do so. He had a flight booked for West Palm Beach, Fla., heading to the team’s complex to help coach struggling reliever  back to form.

Menhart only made it about two houses down from his home near Savannah, Ga., before he got a phone call from Nationals assistant general manager Doug Harris telling him to cancel the flight to Florida and get ready to meet the Nationals in Philadelphia as their new pitching coach.

“And I just went, ‘Whoa, Doug. Don’t be messing with me,'” Menhart said from the visitor’s dugout at Citizens Bank Park on Friday.

By the time Menhart returned home and told his wife, Bitsy, the news, he had tears in his eyes. Menhart has been a member of the Nationals organization since 2006, serving as pitching coach at all three Minor League levels before becoming the team’s Minor League pitching coordinator in '15. And now, after 14 years in the organization, Menhart has reached the big leagues, taking over as pitching coach after the Nationals fired Derek Lilliquist following Thursday’s game.

“It’s always a goal to get to the highest level of anything you do,” Menhart said. “It wasn’t something I was searching to do this year, because I love working with the kids down in the Minor Leagues -- I have for the last 14 years. This is a nice reward. I’m very grateful.”

With Menhart, the Nationals believe they are injecting a different voice into the clubhouse to aid a pitching staff that has underachieved 30 games into this season. Their rotation, overhauled with the additions of  and , entered Thursday with a 4.30 ERA, which ranked ninth in the National League. Their bullpen -- which added ,  and Rosenthal this winter -- has been a disaster all year, putting up a 5.87 ERA that trails only the Orioles for the worst in the Majors.

Lilliquist takes the fall for that underwhelming start, a move that caught the Nationals' pitching staff by surprise.

“In season, I've never dealt with a pitching coach change in the middle of the season, so this is something that's going to be new for me,”  said. “The only thing here is with Paul, I worked with him in Spring Training, and so he knows kind of the basics of what I want to do. Now it's trying to get him on the same page of what I want to do in the season.”

Menhart inherits a staff that includes stars such as Scherzer, , Corbin and . The Nationals believe Menhart’s years in the organization will ease the learning curve for the first-time pitching coach because he already has some sort of relationship with nearly the entire roster, from either their time in the Minors or from working with them during Spring Training.

“I’m not going in blind, so that’s the good thing,” Menhart said. “To have prior relationships with these guys is only going to benefit all of us. It’s just a matter now of hearing something that they may have heard differently coming out of my mouth. And hopefully moving forward, they get better as we try to do at every level. Big league guys need to get better, too. That’s what’s going to be the focus.”

Most importantly, the Nats want Menhart to provide a different perspective. They took issue with Lilliquist’s preparation for games and wanted him to embrace analytics more openly. And, after a 13-17 start, perhaps they were looking for a spark, something to ignite this team one month into the season.

“I told him I just want him to come here and 'do what you do best,'” manager Dave Martinez said. “You know what you're doing. So just go out there and build your relationships and be a pitching coach.”

Soto misses third straight game

The Nationals were without left fielder  on Friday night for the third consecutive game as the discomfort in his back continued to linger when he swings a bat.

Soto had been a late scratch the previous two games, but Martinez wanted to exercise caution and allow Soto to spend the day getting treatment and rest before he tests his back again. Martinez is hopeful Soto will be ready to return to the lineup at some point this weekend.

“Before he felt it when he was throwing,” Martinez said. “And now he says he feels it not as much, but he still feels a little bit of it. So we're just being cautious.”