Nationals' bullpen unravels in extra innings

April 28th, 2019

WASHINGTON -- As the Nationals continue to search for a solution to fix their beleaguered bullpen, perhaps the biggest issue is that it cannot all be pinned on one player. Washington began the day with the highest bullpen ERA in the Majors -- and inflated it to 7.34 following its latest meltdown in Saturday’s 8-3 loss to the Padres in 10 innings -- because nearly all of its relievers have remained ineffective seemingly no matter what role they slot into.

On Saturday evening, the combination of Wander Suero, Justin Miller and Matt Grace combined to pitch a rough 10th inning. Collectively they faced 10 Padres batters and gave up hits to three of them, walked three more, hit another and allowed six runs to score.

The damage from that frustrating 10th inning resulted in the third straight loss for the Nationals, who have now dropped six of their past eight games overall and need a win Sunday at Nationals Park to avoid being swept by the Padres.

“We've got a problem in our bullpen and we've got to fix it,” manager Dave Martinez said.

The Nats actually had some encouraging contributions earlier in the game. Joe Ross tossed a scoreless eighth inning, his fourth consecutive scoreless outing, as he continues to make his case to be used in more high-leverage situations. After giving up the game-winning homer the previous night, Sean Doolittle bounced back with a pair of strikeouts and a scoreless ninth Saturday.

But there are few consistent, reliable options to pitch in high-leverage situations beyond that.

Suero walked a pair and gave up a pair of hits and only recorded one out, but was charged for four runs. Miller, pitching his first game since coming off the injured list with a back injury, hit the first batter he faced and then gave up a run-scoring single. Grace promptly walked the first batter he faced.

“It’s just one of those things in general that the team goes through bad stretches,” Suero said through an interpreter. “But we are staying positive about it and hope our luck changes. That’s all we can do.”

For now, it appears staying positive and hoping for a turnaround is all the Nationals can do because they do not have the flexibility for a major bullpen overhaul at the moment.

They do not have many Major League-ready relievers waiting to be promoted from the Minors. They have searched the free-agent market for potential solutions, but outside of Craig Kimbrel -- and signing him would push the Nats over the competitive balance tax threshold -- the market for free-agent relievers is thin.

That means at some point the Nationals are going to need better contributions from the relievers on the roster if they want to turn this slow start around.

“All these guys, we need all these guys,” Martinez said. “If we're going to win consistently, we need all those guys to pitch well in the bullpen. I just want them to go out there and pitch with conviction. Know who you are, throw the pitch you need to throw with conviction and whatever happens, happens.”

This Nationals entered the year with high expectations and postseason aspirations, yet through 25 games feel as if they have yet to play their best baseball in 2019. It’s what allows them to be optimistic, that despite this slow start, eventually once they get rolling, they will be able to start rattling off wins in bunches. Stephen Strasburg recorded his second straight strong start, striking out nine over seven innings of two-run ball.

But first, the Nats need to solve their bullpen woes, an early-season flaw that is threatening to derail this once promising season.

“Everyone says it's early -- you don't want to keep saying that,” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “You want to win games, obviously, but if you're going to play as bad as we've been playing, it's better to do it now so we can recover.”