ANAHEIM -- For months this season, when the Nationals carried a close lead late in the game, it quickly turned into the moment of frustration and disappointment. Entering the second half, their bullpen owned the largest ERA in the Majors and had blown 14 saves. The answers to those season-long
ANAHEIM -- For months this season, when the Nationals carried a close lead late in the game, it quickly turned into the moment of frustration and disappointment. Entering the second half, their bullpen owned the largest ERA in the Majors and had blown 14 saves. The answers to those season-long struggles arrived Tuesday afternoon at Angel Stadium, when right-hander Ryan Madson and left-hander Sean Doolittle joined the Nationals for the first time since being traded from the A's on Sunday.
And they were thrown right into action right away, tasked with protecting a lead during the final two innings. First, Madson threw a 1-2-3 eighth inning with a one-run lead. Then, Doolittle retired Michael Trout and Jose Pujols with the tying run at second base in the ninth to seal a 4-3 Nationals win.
Neither player had been traded before and both pitchers admitted to feeling a little extra energy compared to a normal relief appearance when they took the mound in front of 43,345 fans, comparing the feeling to their Major League debut.
Madson has been in the Majors for 12 seasons and has played for new teams before, but he felt the same adrenaline. And yet he harnessed that feeling for a dominant 1-2-3 eighth inning, with a two-seamer that sat in the upper 90s and a curveball with devastating movement. The Nationals' dugout went wild when he returned.
"I don't think anyone's ever been more excited in a big league ballgame that we got out of the eighth inning in this game," Bryce Harper said.
"I was shocked. It was funny," Madson said. "They were having a good time with it. I definitely wasn't expecting it, but it was a nice reception. They don't have to do that every time, but the first time out, that as really cool. It was like a welcome to the team. That was nice."
If Madson felt the adrenaline on the mound, he knew Doolittle, who had spent his entire career with the A's, would, too. He took the mound with a two-run lead in the ninth, and misfired on all of his warmup pitches. Then he issued four consecutive balls to the start the inning to pinch-hitter C.J. Cron. Doolittle would settle in a bit. Ben Revere hit into a forceout at second, before Kole Calhoun hammered a 383-foot double off the right-field wall. It was the first hit Doolittle had surrendered to a lefty all season (they had been 0-for-24), and it put runners at second and third for Trout and Pujols.
But Doolittle bared down to force Trout into a broken-bat groundout to shortstop, which allowed a run to score to make it a one-run game, before Pujols flied out to left field to end the game and secure Doolittle's first save with his new team.
"I promise they won't all be like that," Doolittle said with a smile.
"That's what [A's manager] Bob Melvin said, he's not easily rattled," Nats manager Dusty Baker said. "It's a situation where he wanted to come through and do his job. From talking to him, he seems like a pretty cool customer under those circumstances and situations."
But who would serve as the closer going forward? Both relievers have experience pitching the ninth inning, and each said they are comfortable with whatever role manager Baker would use them in. Baker did say after the game that he was told Madson prefers to pitch the eighth, and Doolittle is comfortable in the ninth, but Baker was not ready to name either pitcher his primary closer.
He cited some durability concerns with each pitcher after a conversation with Melvin. Madson has 86 career saves and has closed in the postseason, however, he will turn 37 next month and has already had Tommy John surgery once in his career. Doolittle has swing-and-miss stuff that hitters have a tough time hitting hard -- his 17.8 percent swinging-strike rate and .154 expected batting average allowed -- rate as the best for any lefty, accounting for Doolittle's lack of playing time. But Doolittle spent time in the disabled list this season and has been to the DL four times during the past two and half years with shoulder problems. That will cause Baker to try and avoid too many back-to-back days for either pitcher.
And the Nationals had to like what they saw from both players. They each realize the pressure that comes with being asked to stabilize a bullpen that owns the worst ERA in the Majors and serve as the sort-of saviors for a first place team. But yet they are up to the task.
"Getting that out of the way feels good," Doolittle said. "I can take a deep breath. I think after going through the high-five line, [Daniel Murphy] looked at me and said, 'Welcome to the Nationals.'"
• Madson and Doolittle were activated prior to Tuesday's game against the Angles, along with right-hander Edwin Jackson, who threw seven innings of two-run ball. Right-handers Trevor Gott and Austin Adams were optioned to Triple-A Syracuse, while right-hander Jacob Turner was designated for assignment to clear room on the roster.
Jamal Collier covers the Nationals for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier.