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Nats' bullpen struggling to keep Cards down

WAS View Full Game Coverage HINGTON -- Craig Stammen wants to make one thing clear: the illness that afflicted him earlier this week is no excuse for his struggles.

"I feel fine," the Nationals reliever said after giving up yet another run in Wednesday's National League Division Series Game 3, an 8-0 loss to the Cardinals. "That [illness] is all gone."

But Stammen's struggles remain, transforming him into the primary scapegoat for a scuffling bullpen. Entering in relief of Edwin Jackson to start the sixth inning Wednesday, Stammen hit the first batter he faced, allowed a booming double to David Freese, and then gave up Daniel Descalso's sacrifice fly, which gave the Cards a five-run cushion.

Stammen has pitched in all three NLDS games, retiring seven batters while allowing three runs on four hits. He has also walked two batters and plunked three.

"You can't hit batters," Nats manager Davey Johnson said. "That was the key. He just didn't do the things he had done all year. In big games, you have to make pitches."

Few Nationals relievers have. Despite ranking third in the NL in bullpen ERA during the regular season, and even starring as a group in NLDS Game 1 after Gio Gonzalez made an early exit, the bullpen has scuffled since. A group of six relievers coughed up seven runs over six innings in Game 2, before four of them gave up four runs in four innings Wednesday.

In Games 2 and 3 combined, Nats relievers faced 48 batters and retired 22 of them, allowing the Cardinals to reach base at videogame rates.

"These guys are just meshing really well together right now," Cards shortstop Pete Kozma said of his own team, tossing the credit around the visiting clubhouse. "Everyone's getting along and everyone's just got each other's backs."

Through three games, the Nationals have been unable to massage each other's mistakes in similar fashion. The fact that their starting pitchers are averaging barely more than four innings per start is only exacerbating the problem, forcing Johnson to turn to his bullpen for at least 12 outs per game, and as many as 18.

But with an off-day Tuesday and plenty of rest heading into October, the Nats understand that overuse is not the issue. According to Stammen, neither is the illness floating around the clubhouse in recent days, a flu-like bug that also affected outfielder Bryce Harper.

Execution is.

"I've been a little off here the past couple of days," Stammen said. "I've just got to figure it out."

Because the Nationals trailed in Games 2 and 3 in the early innings, Johnson has also leaned less on two of his best relievers, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen, than he otherwise might. Those closer types have submitted just three scoreless innings, marking the lone bright spots in the bullpen.

Stammen, Sean Burnett and Ryan Mattheus, meanwhile, have combined to post 9.35 ERA in 8 2/3 innings -- nearly the equivalent of one full game.

"We've got to get off to a good start [in Game 4]," Stammen said. "That's pretty key for us, and we'll see what we can do."

Washington Nationals, Sean Burnett, Christian Garcia, Ryan Mattheus, Craig Stammen