Revamped 'pen working wonders for Nationals
ATLANTA -- Two months ago, one of the biggest narratives around Major League Baseball was the inconsistency of the Nationals' bullpen. It seemed that teams could counteract the strong starting rotation by scoring against Washington's struggling bullpen.
Nationals manager Dusty Baker vividly remembers those days, when his 'pen had an MLB-worst 5.27 ERA. He said he would spend many nights by the bullpen phone wondering whom he could trust to pitch in high-leverage situations. He knew his team needed more relievers to support his talented roster.
"The phone would ring and everybody would jump," Baker said. "That is why I don't like the bullpen by committee. You like to have, if possible, designated roles."
Baker's hopes were fulfilled on July 16 when Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo went out and acquired relievers Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle from the A's. On July 31, Rizzo acquired Brandon Kintzler from the Twins.
Since those acquisitions, the Nationals' bullpen has found its stride. Entering Wednesday's game, the unit has a 3.28 ERA since July 16, which ranks fifth among all MLB teams. Doolittle has slid into the closer's role and collected 19 saves, while Madson and Kintzler have become valuable setup men for the club.
Madson has a 1.06 ERA in 17 innings with Washington and has limited opposing batters to a .169 batting average. Kintzler has been good as well, striking out 11 batters and pitching to a 2.66 ERA in 20 1/3 innings with the team.
"There was a little bit of a trickle-down effect as we slid into new roles," Doolittle said. "It kind of helped everybody else slide into their roles as well. I think more than anything, the stability was kind of a byproduct of us coming over and fitting in."
The veteran leadership has helped the Nationals strategically match up better against opposing teams. Against the Braves on Tuesday, Baker went with Madson in the eighth inning and Doolittle in the ninth inning.
The strategy worked as Madson pitched around a leadoff walk. The veteran got Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman to strike out before inducing a ground ball from Nick Markakis to end the inning. In the ninth, the Doolittle was able to use his deceptive fastball command to get the save.
"Everybody got comfortable and there was direction," Madson said. "You know what to expect more than before probably. When that happens, it is a recipe for success."
Baker said that the Nationals will continue to work more guys into the bullpen mix. He wants to make sure the entire group is ready before the playoffs start.
"We still have work to do and we still want to figure out how to keep them healthy, especially in the case of Doolittle," Baker said. "It is a daily thing and Mike [Rizzo] and I discuss."
Baker also understands that everybody has to be on the same page. He wants to make sure that his guys all get work to help the team win. But he knows that his team is in a better spot than eight weeks ago.
"I think the key is communication," Baker said. "You don't want them guessing and I don't like them guessing because it is such a mental thing in the bullpen. It is more mental than any other area of the game. It is so very important."