Nats' bullpen can't find 'best stuff' late

April 6th, 2019

NEW YORK -- Nationals manager Dave Martinez laid out his plan before the start of the season to close out games late. If their starter could get through at least six innings, he would turn to in the seventh inning, then in the eighth before handing the ball to in the ninth, with free to spot in as a matchup lefty in a high-leverage situation.

Nothing has gone according to plan for this Nationals bullpen at the start of the season, however, particularly in the eighth inning, which has become a daily nightmare for Martinez to navigate. Washington has given up runs during the eighth in six of their first seven games, including three runs in the penultimate frame Saturday afternoon to turn a two-run lead into a 6-5 loss to the Mets.

Pete Alonso and Robinson Cano hammered back-to-back home runs off , then Keon Broxton drove in the go-ahead run against Tony Sipp. The Nationals have now combined to give up 17 runs in the eighth to start the season.

“We’ve got to figure out that eighth inning,” Martinez said. “Guys have got to come in and throw strikes and get hitters out. That’s the bottom line. You put them in positions where you think they’re going to succeed, and they’ve got to come in and do the job.”

Rosenthal was supposed to be pitching in these spots, after the Nationals signed him to a one-year, $7 million deal in October after watching his showcase in Southern California earlier that month. His velocity remained in the upper 90s and he even touched triple digits that day, giving Washington confidence that he was healthy despite not having pitched since undergoing Tommy John surgery in August 2017.  

But Rosenthal has yet to retire any of the first seven hitters he’s faced this season, giving up four hits and three walks, all of which have come around to score, prompting Martinez to try and ease him back in to action with some lower leverage situations.  

Which is why the Nats turned to Miller, who had not allowed a run in his first four appearances, to protect a two-run lead in the eighth inning Saturday. But Miller did not have his best stuff on the mound, surrendering back-to-back homers to start the frame, quickly erasing the lead.  

“It was just one of those days,” Miller said. “Just didn’t have my best stuff. I was just trying to go out there and attack guys. They beat me today. I’ll go out there tomorrow and beat them.” 

Sipp came into the game with two outs in the inning, but he gave up a double to Michael Conforto and hit Jeff McNeil with an errant pitch before Broxton’s go-ahead single.  

“Didn’t have my best stuff,” Sipp said. “Didn’t put guys away when I was ahead.” 

The Nationals bullpen entered the day with the worst ERA in the Majors at 9.64, which rose to 10.02 after Saturday's meltdown. It has forced Martinez to get creative, searching for the correct buttons to push to help navigate through the final outs of the game. Right now none of the options he has have been reliable to start the season, leaving Washington in search of answers for a bullpen that has become an issue once again.  

“It’s tough, but I trust these guys,” Martinez said. “The other day, they came in and they did the job. Today, they didn’t. We’ve got to keep grinding. I’ve got to keep putting these guys in these situations. They’re going to have big moments, and they’re going to get big outs.”