It’s a narrative that Nationals fans have become all-too familiar with this season. The starters pitch a quality game, the offense scores enough to be able to win. And then in comes the bullpen, and suddenly that lead is gone. It feels like it happens instantly, and like it’s a given. One or two of these games is okay; it’s bound to happen over a 162-game schedule. But to have the constant fear of the bullpen even entering the game for fear of a lead slipping away every game is a major concern.
I don’t know the exact math over the whole season so far, but Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Tanner Roark, and Gio Gonzalez should each have at least two more wins than they do, and possibly fewer losses. Scherzer on Sunday against the Rangers went 7.1 innings, struck out 10, and only gave up one run when he was on the mound, yet he got the loss because the bullpen couldn’t keep it together. On Saturday against the Rangers, Gio went 6 innings and only gave up one run and had a lead into the ninth inning, when the bullpen subsequently blew the save and lost the game in the eleventh inning. I could go on and on, but I think you get the picture. The starters consistently go deep into games, but are denied the win when the bullpen can’t hang on late in games. And that is soul-crushing for a team. The starters have an ERA hovering around 3.50, which would be even lower without a few fluke starts. The bullpen has an ERA of about 5.00. The Nationals are a good team. Imagine how great they could be if their bullpen wasn’t holding them back.
So what’s the problem? What’s going wrong? What’s the difference between this year’s atrocious bullpen and last year’s solid bullpen, which ended the season with a 3.37 ERA (which was actually lower than the starters’ ERA of 3.60)? There are a couple of major key differences which I believe are having a huge impact on the bullpen.
While not the flashiest guy in the ‘pen or the guy with the best stats, Petit represented something that was missing from the 2017 bullpen until the shaky emergence of Jacob Turner: a trustworthy long reliever. He could give you a spot start in a pinch, 4 or 5 innings in relief, or let it all loose in one inning. He’d let in a few runs now and then, but it was tolerable because he’d be out there for a large majority of the game. And he was one of those pitchers we didn’t realize how much we relied on until he was gone. His ERA was 4.50, which didn’t seem all that great last season, but any ERA under 5 is looking pretty good right about now.
When the trade for Mark Melancon was made, nothing else seemed to matter except for him. But now Mark is gone, and we’re left missing the guy that we gave away to get him in the first place. A talented lefty sounds pretty good right about now. We didn’t think much about the loss of him at first, what with his 4.09 ERA with both the Nationals and Pirates last year, but think about what the Nationals could have had this year. Currently, Rivero’s season ERA sits at 0.53. Sit on that.
Technically he isn’t gone, but he’s only pitched in six games this season, only giving up a few runs. Sammy last pitched on April 18th before going down with injury, and he has yet to return. Another important lefty arm, he ended last season with a 2.41 ERA while eating up important innings and only giving up a total of 11 earned runs and one home run all year. His return is yet to be given a timetable, but the sooner Solis is back in the bullpen, the better.
This one is the big one. Closer struggles over the last five seasons or so in Washington have been well-documented. Every single closer the Nats have had over that period of time have had some sort of meltdown, save for one single exception: Mark Melancon. Melancon was the only saving grace in the closer role, and the only closer who would consistently put up boring ninth innings (a rare commodity nowadays). For the last few seasons, Melancon has been one of the best closers in the league, if not the best closer. He was exactly the kind of guy you want in your bullpen, and he was the perfect solution to the Nats’ closer woes. For awhile, everything was perfect. And then he left us. San Francisco threw money at him, and he chose the bay over the nation’s capital. And the bullpen hasn’t been the same since. Despite naming “closers,” no one in the bullpen has truly had a defined role after Melancon left. The best bullpen pitcher the Nats had in the last few seasons left, and he left a huge hole behind in his wake. Maybe if the Nats had splurged a little more, they could have kept the guy who had a 1.64 ERA and 47 saves last season.
The Noticeable Differences in Shawn Kelley and Blake Treinen
During Spring Training, Shawn Kelley and Blake Treinen were in contention, along with Koda Glover, for the closer role. This was largely due to their stellar performances in the 2016 season. Kelley held a 2.64 ERA and only gave up 17 earned runs all season. This year, his ERA is 7.16, and he’s almost equaled his earned run total of last season. Treinen had a 2.28 ERA and also gave up 17 earned runs all season. This year his ERA is 6.33 and he’s already surpassed his earned run total from last year. So what changed? There are no clear answers, but there are a couple of things you can point to: lack of command, not handling the late-inning pressure well, letting a lack of confidence affect pitching, and a number of factors I can’t put my finger on. The Nationals were relying on these guys and everyone else from last year’s bullpen to be the same guys they were last season, but obviously they haven’t been the same.
So what needs to be done? Everyone seems to have an opinion, but no one has an answer. There’s only one consensus: help needs to come quickly, preferably now. And I agree. Management could have solved this problem before it started if they’d tried harder to keep Melancon or if they’d picked up Greg Holland, the closer with a 1.14 ERA and 23 saves in Colorado who practically begged to be on the team. But now the only thing to do is look forward. Looking into your options at Triple-A might not be a terrible idea. The Nats could also look to make an early deal. Hell, call up that lefty they just drafted in the first round. He sure as hell couldn’t be any worse.Tags: Blake Treinen, Felipe Rivero, Jacob Turner, Mark Melancon, Nationals, Nats, Sammy Solis, Shawn Kelley, Washington Nationals, Yusmeiro Petit