At one point in 2014-2015, the Kansas City Royals won 111 straight games when leading after 7 innings. This year’s Washington Nationals have coughed up approximately 111 late leads.
While a team would typically point to one or two culprits for an inflated E.R.A. or poor performance, that is not the case for this year’s bullpen. Sure, there have been glimpses of hope when you look hard enough; Enny Romero will come in and flash 101 with a nasty slider and you start to see a rough outline of Aroldis Chapman dominance, but then he’ll hit a guy, walk three more, and leave with another disaster outing having recorded 1 or no outs. Koda Glover, considered the most consistent performer in high-leverage situations, has given up multiple runs on three separate occasions (including 5 in a third of an inning in Oakland) and has now gotten injured due to not reporting an injury. From Shawn Kelley to Oliver Perez to Joe Blanton and opening day closer Blake Treinen, the Nationals bullpen has eaten into what could’ve been an even more incredible start by this team.
‘We need help.’ Three very poignant and simple words that spoke volumes to the state of the Nationals bullpen in 2017. Those weren’t words by a disgruntled fan or unhappy starter that was robbed of another win, but rather the words of a player’s manager in Dusty Baker. These sentiments were echoed after he watched his team battle back from an early deficit and an uncharacteristic Stephen Strasburg rough outing to put up 9 runs and lead 9-6 heading into the eighth. While most fans would chalk that up as a win given their teams’ solid relief at the back end of the bullpen, Nationals fan have gotten accustomed to sweating it out in the late innings. Sure enough the Nationals bullpen coughed up 5 runs and added another loss and blown save to their ledger this season. That brought their tally to 11 losses and blown saves, and a ghastly E.R.A. that now stands above 5.
With a 9.5 game lead in the division and an incredible offense that has remained hot, the Nationals bullpen has not cost the team dearly just yet. The starters have done their jobs for the most part, but with their workloads among the heaviest in all of baseball, the fear would be what the overwork will do to their arms as the season wears on. Even more than overwork has to be the demoralizing feeling that the team gets every time a reliever puts someone on base and thoughts of ‘here we go again’ creep into everyone’s minds. Time and again the relievers have been trusted with a late lead only to give it right back. An offense that is first in the national league in runs scored and second in the majors in OPS will keep the team in the game most nights and the starters have done their part to prop up the pitching staff to 11th in the majors in runs given up.
A 94 win pace is nothing to scoff at, but with even average relief pitching, the team could be on pace for 100+ wins for the first time in Franchise history. While you can’t fire or release an entire bullpen, it’s time for Mike Rizzo and the Nationals front office to bring in some outside help. Otherwise, this promising season will end with the Nationals and their fans demoralized by playoff failure once again.