By David Driver
For the Savannah Morning News
Used with permission
PHILADELPHIA â€” Longtime Richmond Hill resident Paul Menhart was getting ready to board a plane in Savannah on Thursday night when he got a call from Mike Rizzo, the general manager of the Washington Nationals.
Menhart knew days earlier that Rizzo had tabbed him to be the next pitching coach of the struggling Nationals, who parted ways with former mentor Derek Lilliquist after Thursdayâ€™s game in the nationâ€™s capital against St. Louis.
But Rizzo wanted to touch base before Menhart headed to Philadelphia, where the Nationals have games against the Phillies.
â€śHe wanted to congratulate me and was excited about what I could bring to the table,â€ť Menhart said Friday.
Menhart, 50, pitched in the majors from 1995-97 with Toronto, Seattle and San Diego. After coaching at Western Carolina, he joined the player development staff of the Nationals in 2006 and has been there ever since.
The St. Louis native joined the Nationals when he was the minor league pitching coach for the then-Savannah Sand Gnats of the Single-A South Atlantic League. Menhart was the pitching coach of the Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) Senators of the Double-A Eastern League in 2012-13, and was in his fifth season as the minor league pitching coordinator for Washington.
The Nationals hope a new voice can help the pitching staff. The bullpen ERA was the worst in the majors for most of April.
â€śIt is always a goal to get to the highest level of anything you do,â€ť said Menhart, sitting in the third-base dugout here Friday before facing the Phillies. â€śI enjoyed working with the kids down in the minor leagues. This is a nice reward. I am very grateful.â€ť
â€śI know Paul well. His philosophy will fit,â€ť Rizzo said.
Menhart was walking his dog a few days ago near his home in Richmond Hill when he got a call from Doug Harris, an assistant general manager with the Nationals.
The plan for Menhart to head to Florida to work with Trevor Rosenthal, on the injured list with the Nationals, was changed. Harris informed Menhart that he was being named the new big-league pitching coach.
Menhart got back to his home and was teary-eyed â€” so much his wife wondered what was wrong with the dog. Then she learned of his new job.
â€śShe jumped up. It was an emotional moment for us,â€ť Menhart said.
Menhart has worked with many of the young pitchers on the Washington staff, but is also familiar with veterans such as Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer.
â€śHe knows the basics of what I want to doâ€ť to prepare, Nationals ace and three-time Cy Young Award winner Scherzer said before Fridayâ€™s game.
â€śI am looking forward to (Scherzer) teaching me how to be a big-league pitching coach,â€ť Menhart said with a laugh. â€śI am going to stay out of his way until he needs me.â€ť
Scherzer is on track to start on Monday while Jeremy Hellickson started here Friday night for the Nationals.
The Nationals, who won the division in 2016 and 2017, were 82-80 last season under first-year manager Dave Martinez. They are off to another sluggish start this year, with a mark of 13-17 and a team ERA of 4.82 through Thursday.
Pitching and Georgia ties run in the family.
Menhartâ€™s son, Michael, played at Richmond Hill High and is now a freshman pitcher with Division III LaGrange. Menhart and his wife Bitsy, who is from Conyers, also have two daughters: one at the University of Georgia and one at Valdosta State.
The couple met at Western Carolina and have lived in Richmond Hill since 2006.
After riding the buses for many years in the minors, Menhart is back again in the majors â€” 22 years after he pitched in The Show.
Martinez and Rizzo discussed bring in Menhart.
â€śAt this point, we wanted a new voice, a new face, someone to relay the message a different way,â€ť Martinez said. â€śAs you guys know, Derekâ€™s a good friend of mine, so this is tough.â€ť
But the Richmond Hill resident was eager to get started.
â€śI have a unique way of doing things, which is very difficult to explain,â€ť Menhart said. â€śI am a big believer in getting guys out as quickly as possible. This is something we have to (do) a little bit better â€” attack the zone.â€ť