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Nats mix and match last piece of the puzzle

MLB.com @TracyRingolsby

DENVER -- The Nationals' lineup is impressive. Entering Wednesday, three hitters were hitting .300 or better, including Bryce Harper reaffirming his elite status and hitting .400, and rookie Trea Turner coming alive on Tuesday night at Coors Field, driving in seven runs, hitting for the cycle and raising his average to .289.

No wonder they are sitting atop the National League East.

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DENVER -- The Nationals' lineup is impressive. Entering Wednesday, three hitters were hitting .300 or better, including Bryce Harper reaffirming his elite status and hitting .400, and rookie Trea Turner coming alive on Tuesday night at Coors Field, driving in seven runs, hitting for the cycle and raising his average to .289.

No wonder they are sitting atop the National League East.

View Full Game Coverage

Washington's rotation is eye-opening. Stephen Strasburg is healthy and Max Scherzer and Gio Gonzalez are sporting sub-2.00 ERAs in a rotation that would have a best-in-baseball 2.89 ERA if not for the one-start, two-out, 10-run nightmare of Jeremy Guthrie's one day in a Nationals uniform.

No wonder they went into Wednesday night's game against the Rockies at Coors Field with a best-in-the-NL record of 14-6.

Then there's the bullpen.

Video: WSH@ATL: Kelley notches his second save of the year

The uncertainty of the 'pen looms as a major question as to whether this franchise that began as the Montreal Expos in 1969 can advance to the World Series for the first time ever, and bring baseball's autumn classic to the nation's capital for the first time since the original Washington Senators lost in five games to the New York Giants in 1933.

Twenty games into the season, manager Dusty Baker and pitching coach Mike Maddux are mixing and matching. They already have given three relievers -- Koda Glover (2-for-3 in saves, 4.15 ERA), Shawn Kelley (3-for-4, 5.00) and Blake Treinen (3-for-4, 9.82) -- save opportunities. Glover landed on the 10-day disabled list Wednesday. He was recently sharing closer's duties with Kelley.

"When you say you have a bullpen by committee, that's an admission you don't have a closer," said Maddux.

That, however, doesn't mean a chairman of the committee won't eventually emerge.

"You have to remind yourself that Mariano Rivera got his first save at some point," said Maddux. "So did Trevor Hoffman. At some point that guy will let you know he's ready."

It's not that a closer ensures a World Series championship. The Nationals added one of the game's best on July 30 last year, and Mark Melancon responded by converting 17 saves and compiling a 1.82 ERA in the final two months of the season.

Even with Melancon, the Nationals were eliminated in the NL Division Series in five games last October. Melancon pitched 4 1/3 scoreless innings, appearing in four of the five games, but he had only one save opportunity -- which he converted in Game 2.

Melancon thought the Nationals might make a push to sign him before he became a free agent, but there were never serious conversations, and he wound up signing a four-year, $62 million contract with the Giants.

There also were reports the Nationals had a deal in place to acquire David Robertson, who had three years and $36 million remaining on his deal with the White Sox. That, however, fell apart.

Now Maddux and Baker are working their way through each game, waiting for someone to emerge. "The best pitcher is not always the guy," said Maddux. "The mental part is more important. The guy has to understand, 'The buck stops here.' There is no help. You are the last man standing."

It takes a special mentality.

Sometimes it's an overpowering competitor, like a Goose Gossage.

Other times it's a mix-and-match guy who is far from dominating but has great command and confidence, like a Dan Quisenberry.

"Usually it comes down to a guy who throws strikes and is durable," said Maddux.

The question of durability can be answered only over time, and with both Glover and Kelley having undergone Tommy John surgery, including Kelley having the surgery a second time, there is no desire to push either too far too fast.

"Resiliency and durability are part of the plan," said Maddux. "It might be those are dynamics that [a pitcher] doesn't possess. You have to manage through that. You might ask multiple guys to do the job, as opposed to having a closer."

That is something that will be uncovered over time.

For now, however, Maddux remains optimistic that an answer will be forthcoming on who will step into that role.

Video: MIA@WAS: Treinen strikes out Yelich in the 9th

He is confident "Kelley can handle it mentally." Treinen has no fear. And Glover has the ability, but "this was the first time he has ever gone to Spring Training in February. He was in college a year and a half ago."

In the meantime, it's a matter of mixing and matching, looking for the right formula. Maddux pointed out that in 2008, when Tampa Bay won the American League pennant and lost to Philadelphia in the World Series, it was a rookie left-hander named David Price who was handling late-inning bullpen duty.

Two years earlier, Maddux pointed out, Cardinals rookie Adam Wainwright found himself closing in the postseason, working 9 2/3 shutout innings and earning four saves as the Cardinals knocked off the Padres in the NLDS, the Mets in the NLCS and the Tigers in the World Series.

"You watch, you listen and guys let you know," he said.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com.

Washington Nationals