Craig Stammen and what makes comebacks happen

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The euphoria in the Nationals dugout late Wednesday night – “unbelievable,” Bryce Harper said – began hours earlier, in a stadium stunned into near silence. The shrill ring of the bullpen phone could be heard throughout Nationals Park. Craig Stammen hopped out of his chair, sprinted to the bullpen mound and started throwing.

The Nationals’ raucous comeback started with Bryce Harper’s towering home run over the right field foul pole, and it ended when Jayson Werth cranked a grand slam into the visitors’ bullpen and chucked his bat like it had insulted someone he loved. It would not have been possible without Stammen.

The night could have been wasted the moment Jordan Zimmermann realized he had no command, the rare Zimmermann start that withered on the vine. He felt strong and had no health issues and couldn’t think of any reason why he allowed five runs in 1 2/3 innings, the shortest outing of his career. “I have no answer for you,” Zimmermann.

In came Stammen to clean up the mess. He hurled 3 1/3 scoreless innings. When he entered, the Nationals trailed, 5-0. When he left, 52 pitches and 13 batters later, they trailed, 5-4. Harper’s three-run homer, rightfully, will receive credit for sparking the Nationals’ comeback. But Stammen’s work was every bit as valuable.

“That’s the difference in the game,” Manager Matt Williams said.

In 2012, the Nationals came back from small-but-significant deficits all the time. Last year, they wilted when they fell behind. The difference was not fight or grit or a clutch hitter. The difference was Tom Gorzelanny.

The Nationals had a better chance to win after trailing by, say, three runs in 2012 because a three-run deficit stayed a three-run deficit. Last year, without Gorzelanny and with Stammen pressed into a set-up role, their middle relief so often leaked runs. Their offense never stood a chance.

The Nationals already have four comeback victories this season. It’s no coincidence they have a 1.65 bullpen ERA.

The biggest factor Wednesday night was Stammen. He entered with two men on and two outs on a chilly night, in a half-empty park suddenly filled with people who wondered if maybe they should have stayed home. The Nationals sent him to the mound, at that point, to soak up innings.

“Well, it’s my ERA and my stats on the scoreboard, so I don’t want to look bad, either,” Stammen said. “So when I go out there, I’m pitching like it’s the ninth inning and it’s a save situation no matter when I go out there. That’s the mindset I have. I think that’s the only way you can actually pitch and have success.”

Since Stammen became part of the Nationals’ bullpen in late 2011, he has excelled in any role the Nationals asked him to fill. He has a 2.45 ERA and 178 strikeouts in 180 innings – since opening day 2012, he has a lower ERA and has pitched more innings than any Nationals reliever. He can get three outs if the Nationals need that. He can enter in the 10th inning and keep pitching until someone scores. Or he can come in before the sun sets and get 10 outs.

“He kind of goes unseen around here,” Werth said. “But he does good work. He does a good job for us. He’s a pillar in that bullpen. He kind of wears many hats and handles many different roles, so he’s a guy we can lean on in times like that.”

“He’s been doing it it seems like his whole career, coming in and saving a starter here and there,” Zimmermann said. “Now he’s coming in, and it seems like he’s lights out.”

Stammen, though, is a victim of his unique ability. Relievers typically work their way up the rungs of the bullpen. Stammen has been typecast as a long reliever because of his durability. “I’ve been lucky,” he said. “I’ve been blessed with somewhat of a rubber arm.” In a way, it’s a curse. Stammen’s track record suggests he could take the kind of role that brings more glamor and, of course, more money.

“I do what they tell me to do,” Stammen said. “Until that changes, I will keep doing that. And it’s kind of fun to be the jack of all trades and kind of be the last man standing. But, you know, we’ll see how long it goes. It’s been fun so far so I’ll keep it going.”

Stammen’s ability and the role he fills is not always recognized. He is never going to the player walking to the top of the dugout steps, ready to tip his cap. He is the one icing his shoulder back in the clubhouse, the one who allowed it all to happen.

FROM THE POST

Jayson Werth’s grand slam capped off a ridiculous game, James Wagner writes.

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

Harper hits seventh

Zimmerman returns

Baker on Nats

Should Nats sell naming rights?

Rendon, LaRoche start fast

NATS MINOR LEAGUES

Syracuse 7, Pawtucket 0: Steven Souza Jr. went 3 for 4 with a home run, a walk and five RBI. Zach Walters went 2 for 5 with a triple. Danny Rosenbaum allowed no runs in 6 2/3 innings on two hits and two walks, striking out five. Ryan Mattheus allowed no runs in one inning, striking out one.

New Britain 5, Harrisburg 4: Jason Martinson went 3 for 4 with a triple. Destin Hood went 2 for 4. Drew Vettleson, the outfielder acquired in the Jose Lobaton trade, went 0 for 4 and is 0 for 12 on the season with no walks.

Lynchburg 9, Potomac 1: Brandon Miller went 1 for 3 with a home run. Tony Renda went 2 for 4. Brian Rauh allowed eight runs, four earned, on nine hits and no walks, striking out three.

Delmarva 5, Hagerstown 3: Spencer Kieboom went 2 for 5 and is hitting .467. Wilfer Difo went 3 for 5 with a double. Rafael Bautista went 3 for 4 with a triple. Austin Voth allowed four runs in 4 2/3 innings on five hits and three walks, striking out six.

Adam Kilgore covers national sports for the Washington Post. Previously he served as the Post's Washington Nationals beat writer from 2010 to 2014.

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James Wagner · April 9, 2014